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On Abandoning Reading Goals This Year
In 2020 I kept a reading goal, till I realized it was doing something sinister to an activity I thought serene.
Numbers help make abstract things concrete. As a ploy, years ago, I used to stun my friends’ silences during conversations with, “Tell me 3 things you’re thinking now.” I stopped this when I realized I couldn’t afford to further annoy, and thus let go of my limited circle of friends. But also, the answers I was getting were boring- like something they concocted to make me shut up, and not necessarily something they were thinking. I recognized, years later, that silence can be the absence of thought, and not necessarily, the indulgence of it. (My mostly frenetic youth was spent filling silences with thought, withdrawn gazes with attempts at remembering old poems I had to memorize about distant mountains with purple peaks, and so this lesson crushed me, in some passive sense.)
If numbers make abstract things concrete, the process of becoming concrete is one of reduction. If I ask you to tell me 3 things today that made you happy, the process of listing the 3 things is a process of erasing the un-listed, perhaps inarticulate things that made you happy on a given day. So, yes numbers help make abstract things concrete, by reduction, by eradication.
If numbers help make abstract things concrete, the process of becoming concrete can also be clarity-giving, ambition-giving. To read 52 books this year- one book per week. To watch 200 movies, write 52 substack posts, etc.
Last year, 2020, I tried to read 50 books, crystallizing this aim as a Goodreads challenge. I fell short of 50 by half a dozen. I recognized, very late into the year, something sinister, but perhaps inane given the capitalist structures we work and leisure under. Every book I finished gave me joy, primarily because it added to the Goodreads reading challenge, and secondarily, for the content it bathed me in. (I am confidently saying ‘primarily’ and ‘secondarily’, because I sensed the first thought that often came upon me when I reached the last word of a book, and it was, “Another book vanquished… 32…31…21…10 more to go.”)
Every book became, in addition to joy-giving, quote-giving, and knowledge-giving, a vehicle to prove my book-reading habit to me and my sparse followers. I remember trying to salvage through Bhagat Singh’s essay on Atheism, painful because of the awful and artless translation, but gratifying mostly for the additional read I had acquired by listing the short essay as a book I read.
What I had done, by giving a number to a recreation, a concrete threshold to a pursuit, was add pressure to pleasure. I was now leisuring under a capitalist framework- of comparative growth, profit, performance, and presentation. A veneer of labour had seeped into the realm of leisure. (This makes me question the whole Marxist idea where “Freedom begins where labour … ends,” essentially arguing that the end of capitalism comes with the shortening of the work day or work week. What kind of freedom is this that even reduces leisure to a competitive gesture?)
So this year I decided to read a lot, watch a lot of movies, and note the books I am reading and the thoughts they augur, without numbering them. I don’t know if this will radically change my attitude towards art, books specifically, because numbers are everywhere, from the date of the month reminding me of the number of days I have been with a book, to the page numbers that will remind me if I am closer to the beginning or the end. (Page numbers are something I have begun to take very seriously while reading, so much so that one of the first thoughts I had while reading The Goldfinch was how gripping the narrative was, that I had forgotten to check the page number for a few dozen pages- a feat for me.)
Of course these constructions of time- a day, a week, a year- can have good consequences. I love New Years because it is a time we constructed for ourselves, to both look back in nostalgia and look forward in hope. It is a reminder that life is lived in that delicate threshold between the past and the future.
So, there is no way to entirely destroy the connection between leisure and labour, but I think perhaps, we can chip away, slowly, at the social conditioning, and see if what we find is something we like. Can I find out what I mean exactly when I say, “I want to read as much as my day can allow and my heart wills.”? Can I disconnect the will of my heart to the thrum of my mind reminding me of the chasm between want-to-read, and having-read.
I am more interested in this project on un-numbering because last year I read this very interesting quote by Che Guevara on Imperialism, but what I think can also extend to Capitalism. (Ironically, the quote is from a quick e-read that I forced myself to finish because the book was registered on the Goodreads website, and thus could be used as an additional book. I was afraid I was falling behind on my reading challenge after taking up Vikram Seth’s 1500 page A Suitable Boy.)
Imperialism distorts human nature itself, suppressing sociality and spontaneousness to others that is intrinsic to human nature, and creates instead self-centered and acquisitive individuals that are indifferent to the well being of others, turning the world into a crowd of aliens.
If you think this is too idealistic, you have to look at what this idea is, in some sense, a response to.
Friedrich August von Hayek, the Austrian British economist, who lists Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Milton Friedman among his fans, has had a huge impact on how we look at the economy, economics, and thus, by extension, the human condition. Stephen Metcalf summarized Hayek’s conception of society thus.
As a kind of universal market (and not, for example, a polis, a civil sphere or a kind of family) and of human beings as profit-and-loss calculators (and not bearers of grace, or of inalienable rights and duties)… [Hayek’s neoliberalism] was a way of reordering social reality, and of rethinking our status as individuals.
Shashi Tharoor in his (disappointing) ode to Indian Patriotism and Nationalism, The Battle Of Belonging, further explained Hayek’s conception, where “the de-regulated market would function as the overarching ‘mind’ that would govern and direct all human affairs.” The fact is that so much of our beliefs is a product of this conditioning- of what this zeitgeist considers good. Think of how we study the bad things that happen in an economy like pollution and poverty as “market failures”, which itself implies that if the market, with its invisible hand were to work, the problem wouldn't exist. We have internalised the market as a moral compass, and everything from labour to leisure gets sucked into its calibration.
Now, of course you can ask, what Guevara considered “intrinsic to human nature”, and what is the “authentic” human nature that has been distorted by waves of imperialism, industrious capitalism, and patriarchy. Of course, the pursuit for the “authentic” is a useless one, I’ll always maintain this. But we cannot dismiss that we are socially conditioned beings, and trying to chip away slowly at the social conditioning that has congealed on us, might reveal a veneer of who we are, perhaps, meant to be, which I believe is a pleasure loving people. (might reveal… might being the operative word) And by now performing our pleasure under the gaze of capitalism that quantifies and rewards everything, we begin to distort our idea of what “pleasure” is and can be. I sincerely believe that I have made what was once a quiet habit of reading into a circus of validation. I remember reading Roald Dahl sitting on the floor in the back of mum’s car as she drove us back from school, my belt, tie, and top button loosened, the langurous afternoon sun of Dubai flooding in as my personal lamplight as I unspooled with Dahl’s imagination. Can I be that again?
So, I hope this year I am able to reclaim a part of the pleasure of living, and to think harder about how I have morphed pleasure into something that is perhaps the opposite of it. The goal, is hedonism. The rest is noise, anyways.
If you like what you read, tell everyone. If you don't, tell me.