AWRITER FRIEND remarked that he had not anticipated how thrilled he would be by his first visit to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. “Imagine all these people milling around, all there to worship a book”. He acknowledged that he was choosing to see it that way. But who can blame his poor book-weakened mind? Particularly when a big, old heavyweight classic is involved.

Illustration: Samia Singh

The book addict can’t help defamiliarising the familiar, plunging the ordinary event into a plot. From early childhood she is accustomed to smiling blankly at the public, her mind still on page 43, now amiably dogeared, while she waits for her parents’ friends to clear off. Of course, you know that she figured ways of smuggling books into the house when the board exam ban was on (tucked into the waistband of her jeans, for instance, was the simplest). Of course, you have met addicts who have told you that they have figured ways of reading in the shower – one stiff arm sticking away from the downpour and soap. Of course, you have heard of those children who read the Bible for the stories or worse, Playboy for the same. Book addicts will tell you these stories if you look faintly sympathetic or even detached, accustomed as book addicts are to worried frowns from potential lovers (“Oh you read”) or loud exclamations (“What a thick book”) or outright derision (“First rank, first rank”).

But don’t let the silly anecdotes of the reading life fool you. Self-deprecating humour, whether sincere or not, is a byproduct of the reading habit — just as clean fingernails are a byproduct of medical school. But the reader does not actually think of herself as an idiot savant, a sad, clownish creature on the same spectrum as the figure of the genius in Hollywood movies — a figure created by that Victorian notion that the intellectual mind is necessarily crazed and unable to deal with either life or household chores. Quite the opposite, she thinks she is prepared for anything. Scott of the Antarctic has taught her to die with dignity under snowy drifts, Katy to live as a gentle, near-annoying invalid, Foncho to seduce a stepmother and Harriet Vane to look askance at the perfect if loopy lover. Most of all, more than penury, dignity, sickness, erotomania, books have prepared her to look askance.

Mothers and lovers may worry but books do not create fluff-headed romantics who believe in the happy ending and swing their legs while waiting for their prince to come. Unfortunately reading does turn us into painfully demanding pessimists. The reader sees the world in the clear grids and lines of narrative convention. In a high-speed chase, it is inevitable that two men carrying a sheet of glass and/or a fruit-cart will attempt to cross the road. It is inevitable that the happy family will be estranged, love will wither and age will fade. Your best friend and husband cannot help falling in love with each other. Bad people get away with murder and war will break out. Peace not so much. Success will be hard-won and transient, originality will be laughed at. The very young reader will fix her cold gimlet eye upon her parents and wonder (even aloud) whether they are being mean to her that morning because of their unsatisfactory sex life.

All those parents who stop their children from reading because they worry that their offspring may become dreamers, unable to deal with ‘real life’, should be congratulated. For the most misguided of reasons they have hit on the one best way of ensuring their children’s well-being. For most readers, the book they have right now is not enough. Neither is the world.

Published here.