This is an essay by Anjali Amit.
My father was a collector. He collected books the way people collect stamps, or coins or matchboxes. Of course books are not small things that are easily stowed away. Books take space. Wherever we turned there was a book in some stage of being read. In such a home how could one not read?
I remember one summer. It was a lazy, languorous day, too hot for run-about games. I’d gathered a pile of books, a tall glass of lemonade, and escaped to the garden. My mother called me in for something. When the chore was done I sat down perplexed. I was thinking of a snack to take out, but what? Then it struck me — the snack I was looking for was the book I was reading. Reading was as satisfying as a snack.
I would gladly have spent my days reading, with the occasional foray into the dining room for a snack. However, the same books that provided such entertainment also talked of the value of a disciplined lifestyle: regular sleeping hours, exercise for good health and three nutritious meals a day. My parents had their arguments provided to them gratis.
“But your books say to eat healthy,” was my mother’s rejoinder to all attempts to spend the day curled up with a book. “And no, hastily gobbled snacks do not count as healthy eating. I expect to see you at the dining table young lady.”
“Early to bed, early to rise/ Makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise,” my father intoned in the evenings. Of course he was the great reader, and could quote extensively to make his point. But he did follow his precepts. We could set our clocks by his bedtime. He was an early riser. After a leisurely cup of tea and communion with the newspaper he would wake up his laggard children for the morning walk.
“One day Dad I will find a writer who refutes your quoted wisdom,” I said to him often.
“Until then we will strengthen your mind with fresh air and good conversation,” he would reply gleefully. I think now that this was his way of encouraging me to read.
And read I did. It was an eclectic diet of books. Poetry and penny-dreadfuls, classics and thrillers, all were fair game. Research studies were dry reading, but I plowed through them nonetheless.
“Schools are an outdated institution,” I announced at the table one night.
“Really?” asked my mother.
“Yes. I read it in a book,” I announced triumphantly. I could quote from books too.
“Hmm. So maybe you should stop going to school?”
“What? I didn’t say that,” I said.
“No. But you didn’t analyze what you read,” replied my father. “The writer may be talking of a specific situation. He may be espousing a different education system. You read his words and repeated them unthinkingly.”
I learnt the value of thinking on the reading. The first requirement for a meal to provide nutrition was that the food be properly chewed. Words needed to be chewed on too I learnt, thought about, teased through the various layers of meaning for them to provide nutrition to the mind.
“You wouldn’t eat junk food everyday, would you?” asked my mother one day. “Don’t put junk in your mind.”
“And how would I know what is junk?” I asked.
“Read long enough and you will learn,” she replied, my mother who would go to used- book sellers and buy books by the bag full.
We argued, discussed, chewed on and digested ideas that the reading exposed us to. Hillaire Belloc wrote:
When I am dead,
I hope it may be said:
“His sins were scarlet,
But his books were read.”
And digested, I would add, to create a well-nourished mind. There is no better epitaph for a reader. Wouldn’t you agree?
Anjali Amit does not subscribe to the ‘eat to live or live to eat’ debate. She reads to live. Occasionally she writes stories for children, and has been known to create a crossword or two.