Cracked Spines: How to Be Alone

In the Sunday that passed, a popular opinion seeking programme on a vernacular channel posed a question to one of the speakers who happened to be a dean of some engineering college, this weekend the show was about the problems faced by the students and professors in an Engineering College.

Having spent four years in one, I can vouch that, what I did to get this degree for is certainly not engineering. What is taught in these institutions are utterly trivial things which include using pens of two different colors during an examination.

The point I am actually trying to make will make me comeback to the question posed to the dean.

“What is feminism?”

Although one is not expected to give an expert level treatise on the subject, a dean or even say a professor is at least expected to have a single line opinion however skewed or rudimentary on the same, the guy just blew wind into the mike.

Another general question posed was about the last book the professors had read, disappointing for the student who would keep his ears tuned to book suggestions, invariably most of them had read self help books; one elderly gentleman cast strong shadows of doubt when he said he had read books by Shiv Carin; while if he had been more careful in dropping names he would have said Shiv Khera. (Or I’m completely wrong and there is an author called Shiv Carin)

My mind somehow has trained me to look unfavourably on those who read self help books, the name of the genre itself being slightly untrustworthy; if you are taking help from a book then how is it self help?

We will leave that for some other day.

The students on the other hand said, they were reading “The Three Mistakes of My Life” and “I Too Had a Love Story”

Talking about books one has read or is reading, is partly exhibitionistic in nature and partly exclusive. But reading as an activity is entirely personal and almost incomparable, the experience of reading for me is very difficult to reconstruct just like how it is listen to a song and retell it to someone else, so it did irk me when people were asked what books they were reading and after some thought I did give in to the feeling that books are being read at least.

To add insult to injury, another panelist also a professor, claimed that one can learn everything from the internet and you tube and that he had stopped reading completely.

This piece is not a comment on the drastically reducing levels of reading as an activity; it is not within the purview of this article to make such a social comment, but all the same this is much of a lament as to how much reading has fallen out of fashion and how difficult it is to meet someone who has the peace that reading gives.

I was introduced to Jonathan Franzen by way of his recent essay, literally spitting out bile on the visibly growing digital culture, naturally I sought out to read his other non-fiction pieces collected under a volume so brilliantly titled “How to be Alone” which is very much within the scope of this article, the solitary pleasure of the reader.

Acts of personal growth, I believe can only be done alone, without the intrusion or the involvement of others, this may be a majorly immature observation; but it has served very well in my life so far.  Even while seeking out company, only with disappointment and with nowhere to go, I return to my books.

Jonathan Franzen is a slow man in a fast world, someone who is having problems with change; How to be alone, if it should be summarised: is the angst of the reader (and writer, mostly used interchangeably) to be left alone in a boisterous atmosphere, for the reader has understood that there is some peace in reading.

With reading comes its fair share of groups, theories and increasing snobbishness which is true of any such ‘recreational’ activity, but these are just some of the excuses in a largely non reading world. The writer as said before is also a reader who silently understands and goes about his business.

Clearly this is a world of two people, one trying to open his/her minds to another, while the other tries to fill it and both are accustomed to be being alone in the process. Solitary confinement is not much a punishment if one can lose one’s way in a book even amidst hundreds in a traveling carriage.

Being a reader to seek such pleasure is in a way to renounce immediate surroundings and the social chatter that goes endlessly eating our time, eating our time in ways in which we end up knowing more about people than we intend to.

The keystone of Franzen’s book is his essay originally called ‘Perchance to Dream'(popularly known as the Harper’s essay); a comment on the state of the American Novel and in turn on reading itself. Locked into his quarters with a television running Franzen muses on what people will read, when writers have nothing to do but watch television.

Sometimes funny, sometimes warm but mostly like lava scraping the mountain sides, this is a book covered with anger directed at a huddling world that doesn’t pause to think about the happiness that loneliness provides.

Cracked Spines is the occasional allocated space for reading and other such activities.

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