“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
In middle school, my school organized a reading competition, the ‘Princess of Reading’ contest. The competition rules clearly stated to write a short synopsis of every book we ever read and also had to include our key takeaways from those pieces. Predictably, the person who read the maximum number of books would be crowned as the Princess of reading.
I was exhilarated by the announcement. We had a couple of months period before the deadline. Being the expert procrastinator that I am, I put off until the very end. As the deadline neared, I took my sweet time to prepare the list and came up with a shortlist of 70 books. I was sure I had read a lot more, but I could not recall all of them at the moment. Let me tell you, it was 2008 and didn't have the luxury of mobile phones or internet connection.
Though it wasn’t a requirement, I took a step ahead and included a tiny illustration of one key element from each story against the title. Since the listicle was long, I created a small booklet out of it. I drew the magnificent Hungarian Horntail from the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on the cover page.
I was proud of my work.
Just before I submitted, I ran my fingers over the smooth golden and brown beauty on the front when a voice inside me whispered,
“You could win”.
I shrugged off that whisper immediately. I had participated to showcase my love for books — which I managed to do wholeheartedly. That day I carefully observed other participants’ submissions. Seeing lists twice as big as mine, I concluded I had no chance of winning.
That’s why a week later when I spotted my name on the winner’s list, I was shocked and ecstatic!
Who wouldn’t be?
However, the unsettled part of me overpowered the happy one.
How could I win when there were better submissions than mine?
That evening I found myself knocking on the door of my English teacher’s cabin. Being one of the judges, she explained that my booklet was different from the rest — handwritten, illustrated, and colourful. That caught every judges’ attention.
That wasn’t it. She pointed out that my takeaways were personalized.
In my booklet, I had mentioned how every character from a particular book influenced my thought process. I included small details like how my uncle and Professor Lupin resembled so much and how I spotted a near burglary attempt at my house using Sherlock Holmes’ deduction skills. I had intertwined the stories I had read with the ones I had lived. That’s what made me stand out from the rest.
That’s the first lesson I learnt from my obsessive reading habits.
1. We, as humans, LOVE stories.
People, I have come to discover, love stories. As kids, we listen to colourful stories. Being a grown-up makes us no different. It’s these stories that create us, connect us, and forge us as one. When we think we do not have a common ground, then we find our own stories to get there. And it’s these stories between the pages of a book I realized, we find our voice.
In that spur of realization in eighth grade, I decided never to stop reading.
My decision did not come out of pride from winning the competition. Instead, it came out of the joy of recollecting the simplest details while writing down each synopsis. It came out of pure happiness that I felt when I recollected why that particular character influenced me to become the person I am today. Most of all, I felt the thrill of re-living a story once again, connecting their stories to mine.
2. Building reading habit is like building a muscle
I inherited the passion for reading from my father. I never saw my father without a book. Every night, after dinner, he would take a book from the shelf and read for half an hour at the least. I clearly remember being patiently seated beside my father, every night, with a book I couldn’t read. However, by the time I would get to bed, I would have increased my vocabulary, even if just by one word.
I was four when I started reading simple words and five when I could read complete sentences. Reading sentences turned into reading paragraphs and then books and series. Building a reading habit is like building a muscle. It does not happen overnight. Like any exercise, reading requires work, motivation, and persistence.
3. As readers, our intentions keep evolving
Though my reading habit has been a constant for the past 21 years, my definition of this act hasn’t been the same.
When I started reading, I did it for my passion for learning. When I was a teenager, I read because I could find solace in the happy bubble of a fantasy world. Now when I read, I have a completely different intention. I look for purpose and a path into the writer’s mind. Be it fiction or nonfiction, I read to get sense out of each word that the author has penned down. I search for the different voices I can make out from the pages of the book. I take notes from the books I read. Being a writer myself, I try to step into the author’s shoes and understand why they wrote what they wrote. Sometimes, the practice is therapeutic, and sometimes it’s frustrating. Regardless, I learn something new each time.
That’s what I meant when I said that reading results in the evolution of a reader’s mind. You may not always look for the same things all the time. Changes in your surroundings, lifestyles, careers will affect you as a reader. Any change that will affect you — externally or internally — will influence your thought process. There will be times when you will read the same passage you read a few months ago and realize that you were missing out on something you didn’t see before. You will actually feel that you don’t read the same way anymore.
Reading has given me the power of reminiscing humanity’s web of documented information. For the competition all those years ago, I created small documentation of books that didn’t deserve to win. Yet my stories reflected my reading habit and spoke louder than the volume of the content.
Reading is an act of passion — an act of pleasure — which, when done right, the information gets etched within us. That’s why reading can be fruitful only when you pursue reading because you want to and not because you may feel you should.