Saturday, August 1, 2015

From Books & Book-Worms to Conservatives & Liberals

Contrary to popular perception, I am not a particularly well-read guy. I am very nitpicky about books and don't have the patience to devote a chunk of time on any one cause at any point of time. Now this has been a source of much embarrassment for me, because for some reason (probably because I talk a lot or because I somehow successfully portray that I'm knowledgeable-because-I'm-well-read or both) people tend to assume I've read many books. On many occasions, I've not even heard of the book or the author. Enough of narcissism, onto the actual topic - despite being badly-read, I've always held books in high regard and well-read people in higher regard (don’t ask me why. Is that a bad premise to start off with – Probably. But indulge me for a bit). Sadly though, though I still swear by books and continue to try to have “reading books” in my “must-do” list, I can’t say the same about the latter. Now generalization is something we Indians love to do (for example . . . :D). But in the recent past, I’ve come across a lot of well-read people who have deeply disappointed me. As an individual, I place a lot of premium on attitude and behaviour – and I guess I can even go on to say that building both these constitute one of the essential goals of life. Which is probably why my attitude towards reading is – though reading in itself is a pleasurable and a quite praise-worthy activity, if your reading doesn’t help enhance your attitude and/or behaviour, it’s really a shame. Over the past many months, I’ve come across many well-read folks/book-worms who have exhibited one or more of the following –
  • Air of superiority – I don’t know how this comes about - whether it is because of the knowledge acquired by reading books or the conscious feeling of having read many books, but it is there.
  • Utter Conviction about their point of view – They are so convinced about the opinion they hold that there will not even be any seeds of doubt that will make them entertain or even consider a contrary point of view.
  • Contempt for people who are not well-read but who venture to voice their opinion on issues they might otherwise have knowledge on/exposure to.
  • Mad Obsession – I’m by-and-large a moderate in most spheres of life (*wink wink*) and a strong believer in balance and not being overly taken in or consumed by any one particular person, cause or event. So I find it a little disconcerting when I see folks reading their books with complete disregard for other potentially important things. For instance, I’ve seen folks immersed in books on deep philosophical/existential issues when there’s a poor Commissioner who’s travelled hundreds of kilometers just to handle a class on how to issue show-cause notices, how to stay honest, etc.
Initially I thought these were just outliers, but pretty much every well-read person I have come across unfailingly exhibited one or more of the afore-mentioned characteristics (Ok the sample-size is so small I won’t disclose it, but take my word for it, will you? :D).

*bias alert* Another interesting observation/hypothesis I have is that these well-read folks invariably tend to be liberal. Now I’m not sure if this liberal streak is a conscious or sub-conscious development. While it is a pretty agreeable generalization that conservatives are usually not well-read (Internet Trolls for example) and liberals are well-read, it’s also a shame because there is so much literature conservatives can lay their hands on, without fear of having their political orientation changed (this fear, I am told, is one of the many factors hindering conservatives from reading up). This also probably explains how/why though the “senior” conservatives are comparably (to “senior” liberals) well-read, your average-Joe conservative isn’t anywhere as well-read as your average-Joe lib.
[On a side-note, this is also probably why I tend to lean on the conservative side slightly more often than not. ;-)]

Now we get to another interesting observation – that of how the number of articles/blogs/social media posts by average-Joe liberals on contemporary issues is more than those by average-Joe conservatives (who are more comfortable sharing the few articles written supporting their point of view. Oh how convenient!) – Yakub Memon’s hanging being a case in point. What’s interesting about this is that online social activism costs but a few pennies and a few books/articles. A software engineer-by-day becomes an expert on Yakub Memon’s hanging by night because he’s read a few articles by “investigative” journalists about how Yakub bhai turned himself in voluntarily, RAW had a deal with him, etc. The only time you spend is on reading books/articles. You don’t need to spend valuable time doing research, collecting data or learning the nuances of law. Classic example for this being Shashi Tharoor’s fantastic conclusion that – given that from 1990-2000 there were more hangings as well as a higher incidence of murder while from 2000-2010, there was just one hanging and the murder rate had substantially reduced – hence capital punishment is *not* a deterrent for murder. QED.

I realize I have digressed. To an alarming extent at that. But let that not take away my fundamental grouse with the “well-read”, which is what I had wanted my post to be about when I started. :D

Confession: For a change, I’ll de-generalize and say that this attitude towards books I have talked about here is purely personal – that a direct outcome of reading books should be to improve one’s attitude/behaviour towards the world/people. I completely agree that people’s motivations to read voraciously might range from “acquiring knowledge for the heck of it” to “getting a high for no specific reason” to “acquiring knowledge to acquire an air of superiority” to “personality development”. Given this, each person is completely justified in being arrogant, supercilious, condescending, etc.
But UPSC clear kiya hoon yaar, well-read or not, opinion to rahega na!
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