One practical outcome of my reading is rationalizing unexplainabiblity to my own fearful self.
Something about life’s mysteries weirds me out. Especially those that have the hint of a solution lurking about. It makes me feel inadequate when I am unable to solve seemingly obvious tangles – it gives me a sense of not being in control.
If I understand something, even if I can’t overcome it in the traditional sense, that understanding demystifies the problem, thereby reducing it in stature.
For example, taxes. Love. Science. Grief. The human need for certainty. Insistence on closure.
That is why, one morning, at my regular spot at the coffee shop, when a lady peered over my shoulder and asked, “what do you with all this reading?”, it lead to an interesting train of thought.
She’d seen me reading every day for the past 3 years at the exact same spot -from ~6:30 am to 8:30 am.
Along with a bunch of regulars, I am one of the early birds in the coffee shop, a ragtag bunch of early risers.
One is a gruffly pleasant 60 something-year-old American who doodles abstract art while passing wry happy-ish comments. The other is a quiet Australian coder who alternates between writing a book on how to build a computer game and being between jobs at the latest cloud startup. There are other phantom regulars too. At times I see sad-eyed, scythe clawed, springy haired visions skipping alongside ethereally as I walk to the coffee shop. She could be chemically induced; I hope not. Then there is me.
Anyway, back to the lady’s question,
“What do you do with all this reading?”.
“I am not sure. I read because I like reading”.
More than how much the answer fizzled out in the lady, it presented me with a case of irritating mystery.
I spend a good amount of my time reading and I couldn’t come up with a decent enough reason? That was ominous.
“I like reading”; “I like reading”; “I like reading”.
I might as well have gorilla-scratched my sides and thumped my chest and jumped onto the table and let out a howl.
Analysis paralysis is a thing. The threshold to act keeps rising as I read more. Suddenly all the reading becomes a burden to act because of the futility brought on by having emotionally traveled all possible outcomes.
However, it is also liberating in one particular sense. When I act on something with knowledge, however trivial the act, it has the satisfaction of deliberation. It is something that I have tried explaining unsuccessfully to those who don’t have these fears and complexes.
It reduces actor’s remorse.
On the other hand, it also makes for missed opportunities because impulse is dulled. Impulse is contagious. Spontaneity is thrilling and vaunted. There are so many store-bought opportunities to delight in; they all promise simple joys. They exhort you to delight in the predictable with the suspended incredulity of experiencing something novel.
I used to give in to the lure knowing full well it would sadden me further. I used to think it was vain and churlish to say, “I think I have mentally and emotionally been there and I don’t think I would enjoy it as much as it is being advertised”. I always used to play along and become all the more miserable for having double guessed my lethargic instinct.
Then one day it clicked.
I was using reading as my opportunity cost. My alternative to anything was reading – a one-way asynchronous communication with a faraway person. A parched wide-eyed rapturous enthrallment by dead or distant humans. I want to listen to them and tattoo my heart with their experiences. Their love, their pain, their fears, their ecstasies. I wanted them all. I wanted to be part of them all.
My alternative to going shopping was reading. My threshold to action was dependent on my reading material.
Through the ages, I have built some tastes and affinities to what I think is the authenticity of the story. In a scarily unscientific manner, some stories seem to jar with artificiality. Maybe the story carries an essence of dissonance. Maybe it starts to take itself too seriously. Sometimes it is impatient with simplicity, or a myriad other reason.
Like our own lives, with gaudily or finely sewn episodic mosaics, the individual tiles diffuse into irretrievable details, dissipating into thin air when stared at too long, only to recrystallize the moment you avert your eyes, disconcerted by the static, and yet, fluid nature of our memories.
If someone knew how engaged I was in my current read they can almost write an algorithm to predict my propensity to act. How well I would please a utility theoretician.
There are still small moments of joy that make me drop a book and smile. In really small everyday happenings I am finding contentment and peace. In the weathered decays of relations and objects, I see the joyous shimmer of sadness. In missed opportunities, I have multiple stories.
Somewhere reading has lightened my heaviness and has made heavy the frivolities.
Like forgotten and faded polaroid photographs of featureless hands, which we will to be ours, holding syrupy candy floss on timeless sleepy afternoons, that wants us to make believe we were wanted enough to have photographs taken of us as children, the vagueness itself becomes a memory to cherish.