We always hear people complaining that they have no time to read. Most of us cannot find the time for many things, specially unpleasant tasks, and probably reading also has become such an unpleasant chore. Though we do not find time for reading, we have time to be enslaved by the ‘idiot box’ for many hours everyday, we have time to play games on our mobile phones, waste hours on social media sites.
None of it bring us happiness, or give us peace of mind, or help us learn anything. Most of the time we are exposed to violence, through news media, entertainment, gossip and the cyberspace. There is violence in every form, domestic, sexual, political and even religious. This epidemic has spread into the novel too, with more and more writers basing their works on violence and anti-social acts. We have crime novels, thrillers, espionage novels, and historical and even science fiction novels which deal mostly with violence. Most of our history books describe violence, about war, about power struggles and invasions.
Watching these visual presentations, and reading such books reduce our feelings of compassion, and makes us apathetic where we should have been able to empathize with the victims of all the violence. If all this violence makes us happy, then we are becoming unconsciously sadistic, sadomasochistic.
However we should be able to read for happiness. What we read should be able to make us happy, not in the way we mean it when we wish each other ‘Happy New Year’ or ‘Happy Wesak’, but it should give us inner happiness. Adults and children moved further and further away from happiness as they gave up reading to watch television and video films, and playing video games first on their computers and then on the tablets and mobile phones. A survey carried out in America had shown that between the ten years from 1996 to 2006 the time spent playing video games and surfing the internet has risen 400%.
In order to keep up with the threat and competition from the visual media, writers tried to imitate the violent culture in their own creations. It works the other way too, a totally harmless novel could be turned into a most violent film, or sometimes a series of such films. There is money in violence, not only for the manufacturers of weapons and equipment used for violence, but also for those who write about them. Toymakers perhaps make more money from toy weapons they sell, and children’s story writers too thrive on violence for the same reason.
Yet the same equipment they are using for their games and surfing today, their tablets and phones, could be used for reading as well. They are easier and cheaper than buying, keeping and carrying around printed books, in the long term. As for the addicts of the ‘Idiot Box’ Groucho Marx has the oft quoted message. “I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book”
Reading has been called a solitary vice, but a vice that is harmless to oneself and to others, and a vice that makes one happy, at the same time. (October 10th, Daily News, Artscope)
Reading for happiness, may not always be the reading for fun or for pleasure. Ever since man became violent, he has enjoyed performing acts of violence and watching such acts. We found it in ancient Rome, men watching and cheering the gladiators, and it is still carried up to now in the Spanish bull fights, and cock fights found in many countries. Many people enjoy watching films depicting extreme violence, and in the same way they like to read books describing violence. Such enjoyment would not bring us happiness. It will only rob us of whatever happiness we had in our minds, because we are drowned in wickedness. There are forces which hold us down, never allowing us to come up. Once we identify these forces we could break the shackles and escape.
Some people do not want to read for happiness. Not because they enjoyed violence, but because they wanted to read the kind of writing which Kafka talked about. Kafka had written, “I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound or stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow to the head, what are we reading for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is my belief.”
Kafka also said that “In theory there is a possibility of perfect happiness: To believe in the indestructible element within one, and not to strive towards it.” He too would have reached some happiness during the few years he had the company of Dora Diament, the young girl he met at Graal-Muritz on the Baltic Sea.
It is the grief and the pain that could enable us to appreciate joy and pleasure, and more importantly, to bring us inner happiness.
For us to be able to read for happiness, we need to write for happiness.
The writer is an award winning bi-lingual author, the only Sri Lankan to have won State Literary Award for English Novel thrice.