“Read Promiscuously”

Read promiscuously. Read everything you can get your hands on, everything you would anyway read, and especially everything you would not.

This is one of the best advice I have ever received, and paid forward. (For elucidation, see this comment below.)

People have many teary-eyed stories about their alma mater, I’m sure, but I am absolutely, stubbornly and staunchly convinced that few places are as miraculously wonderful for the young, curious mind (and soul) as the department I spent my undergraduate years in.

JUDE, or the Jadavpur University Department of English, is a bit of a cultural phenomenon in India — and I choose my nouns advisedly. It has perhaps single-handedly contributed more people to academics, journalism, publishing, advertising, and the creative fields hereabouts, than most other universities put together.

What this implies is that JUDE, down the years, has had a fantastic set of fabulous teachers, who epitomise a charming, old-world approach to education in general, and scholarship in particular. Diversity and depth, that was the JUDE keyword — a quaint and miraculous delight in the age of narrow over-specialisation in the social sciences. Plus persistent curiosity; humour, with generous dollops of self-effacing irony; a streak of healthy irreverence for most sociopolitical institutions; and an off-hand nurturing of young sparks, aimed at creating intellectual independence and critical thinking, rather than the manufacturing of tenure-ready clones (although the best amongst them also instilled a sense of practicality in us).

One of the most important things we learnt from this apparent epitome of the ivory tower, however, was how not to be snob. JUDE cured most of us of the prejudices we carried into it, and in its stead, instilled in us, subliminally, a contempt for name-dropping little frogs puffed-up on hot air (and frequently misused jargon), clamouring for the smallest toeholds in stagnant little ponds. It is a lesson that has stood me in both good stead and bad, but even when it’s brought home worldly harm, enormous relief at not being pitched head-first into such tiny, seething pools of back-stabbing and petty politics has followed soon behind.

I was reminded of it all in a sudden rush this morning, when Facebook threw up an old post by S. Boxling, who was a year or two behind me at college and is an adorable fluffball (with a delicious amount of bite).

Here is what she wrote, re-posted without permission. The original comments, many very JUDE-centric, will be posted in the comments’ below.

Read this piece via somebody, can’t remember who, step up so that I can thank you. It would be presumptuous of me to say that I agree with this since I have never read Derrida, nor have I written a book or written for New Yorker. What I do agree with is the fact that people our age (whatever they choose to call themselves; students, scholars, academics) should read more fiction to explain the world and less theory. JNU sadly, is bereft of fiction readers (if you read books beyond your specific area of interest, course readings, bestseller lists and literary fiction, do contradict me). I have found that people who don’t read for fun have a scarily narrow worldview. In school I was the most widely read person I knew; in JUDE I was an insignificant git in a sea of people who read voraciously, who read everything they could lay their hands on and who did not care very much if reading the books they did helped them get better grades or sound smarter in conversations. I live in JNU (and have to live here for two more years) so I won’t rant anymore about reading habits here. I have always judged non-readers and I always will.

I don’t ‘judge’ non-readers, especially if their lack of reading is an inability to acquire or afford either an education or books, or the time to read, but it has been my experience that people who do not read widely or beyond the prescribed bestseller lists have quite terrifyingly limited worldviews, which can then be manipulated and the results applied to the ‘real’ political worlds they live in.

A better-read world, I think, would have more wonder, more understanding, more tolerance, and consequently more plain common sense than to revel in petty feuds and global bloodbaths, or cower in little burrows, terrified of the slightest differences. A richer world within goes a considerable way in ensuring a calmer, more sensible world without. So bring the book-love back on, is my advice to you. Do your bit for it. Read promiscuously!

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12 comments

  1. These are the comments on the original Facebook post:
    Gargi Bhattacharya — Alas, true. i realised this when i started my PhD on postmodern fiction and found the jantaa lacking in the fundamentals. The library is a ghost that’s never seen a the light of a fictitious day. 😦

    Ahona Panda — I’m doing Poco and if I attend an 18th century seminar people look at me as if I’m crazy and retarded.

    Ahona Panda — Which I am, but not because of this reason.

    Srinanda Ganguly — Ah but why think of them as fundamentals? That is part of my basic issue with reading habits here, people read to build, to know. I have learned so much from reading but always by chance and never by design, as have all the other readers I know outside of here. But never here, no, theory porlei hoye gelo.

    Gargi Bhattacharya — Hyan exactly: somewhere it has replaced the praxis of literature, that which is the actual writing. And even fiction labours under the theoretical sufferance, and becomes more metanarratorial to compensate its theoreticism. It’s frustrating. jano bhalo lekha theoretical na hole sheta ke guilt e bhuugtey hawbe, and that all good writing should be compulsively self-reflexive/referential. It’s become a homage to theory. Ki kawra jabe?

    Srinanda Ganguly — Panda, do you think in higher studies, for our generation, there is an unspoken rule that you cannot be interested in anything that does not relate to your area of interest? I attended a lecture recently where the lecturer was speaking on trauma and Africa and she referred to Heart of Darkness and Auden and she teaches Art History. Made my week it did.

    Ahona Panda — There are three kinds of kids in our generation.

    1. A type common to JNU and JU and many US universities who don’t read much but read blurbs and reviews and readers. They don’t read with depth. They then advertise their knowledge and ask you to read this and that and basically ooh and aah when you haven’t read something.

    2. People who take their own area of research and interest so seriously that they read nothing outside that area. Again typical of JNU, Oxbridge and many Ivy League grad students. When confronted with voracious readers they express mild scorn, slight disbelief and polite bafflement. They imply that you are not as serious as they are.

    3. People who read diversely and sometimes deeply. We love fiction and are always open to the possibilities of fiction, art and life. Accused of intensity, of lacking the Foucauldian dull grey erudition, and charged of basically being intelligent, fickle and funny, people often neglect to realize that we have the healthiest view of life. We are not fascist.

    Srinanda Ganguly — Open to possibilities, yes yes and yes. We are fortunate that we have been taught by type 3 people.

    Ahona Panda — I don’t know about the teachers as much as it being a question of personal choice. I swear to God not having “ambition” the way these people have ambition-the one who are looking to have jobs in 4 years time-has helped me love literature in no uncertain way. Then again, I would like to have that kind of ambition too. I probably think it’s an evil streak in us, a kind of Satanic creativity- “Which way I fly is Hell/Myself am Hell.” πŸ˜›

    Ahona Panda — “I probably think” *facepalm* see what I mean? Dilettante dubious dismal daughters of literature.

    Rimi — Boxling, this is spectacular. And spot on, Ahona. And now, I’m afraid, I’m going to have a pompous post on the matter myself.

    Ahona Panda — What love is to sex is what literature and art are to theory.

    Nerida Little — Someone once asked me if I was named after Derrida. They obviously couldn’t spell very well.

    Poushali Bhadury — Swapanda’s advice to us always was, “Read promiscuously. Read everything you can get your hands on, everything you would anyway read, and esp. everything you would not.”

    He also said, and Tintinda says he told him the same thing, that this reading promiscuously business is best done as an undergrad, when you aren’t bogged down with research and having to read things for a specific purpose (writing an article, a dissertation, an exam, whatever).

    Part of the reason I went into kidlit was because it NEVER felt/feels like my “field”. I read what I’ve always loved best, and hey presto! somehow that’s also doing work. If reading and re-reading _Anne of Green Gables_ counts as “work,” then give me more of it, I say. AND I read anything and everything I want to, still.

    But Srin, finding a good community of readers is a huge thing, something I’ve realised only after I’ve left JUDE. In my department, people pretty much DON’T read for pleasure, don’t read outside their own fields and it makes me ill to even contemplate.

    Srinanda Ganguly — Nundy, can’t think of a better topic for a P.R. post. Love those anyway, good heated discussions ensured. Manu Singh, you are perhaps the only person I know here who reads “promiscously” and without reason, and if theory comes under that, then all the better. I read theory purely on a need to know basis. Little, haha that old joke again! Kaichudi, I think we were able to foster our reading habits through undergrad (and postgrad in most cases except mine) in JUDE because we were not made to read and apply theory obsessively (can’t speak for PG) but were free to reach our own conclusions about everything. I passed BA without doing much secondary reading, forget theory, and not too badly either.

    Also, Sukantoda told me in one of my first semester undergrad tutorials that the best writing was simple writing and that is what I’ve been aiming to write like since then, without jargon and unnecessarily obscure words.

    Rimi — Yes, it’s funny that despite my sieve-like memory, I remember Swapanda saying that. Despite obsessively recording most JUDE quotes on my old blog, I never could bring myself to write that down. There’s an exceptional, almost intellectually spiritual quality to that advice, on the back of dead practicality.

    Poushali — Rimi: precisely.

    Anushka Sen — I agree with Spin and Ahona. And with reference to Swapan da’s article, it is highly inspiring but what is also scary about it, is that his idea of promiscuous reading far outruns reading idenfiably pleasurable books that are beyond the syllbaus. It also includes getting off our asses to read books we’d never have read otherwise, and won’t get to later if they don’t fall under field of specialisation. Hence I also try and read ‘important’ books I wasn’t eyeing all happen, hoping the love might happen with some of those also. But always, so much easier to try out new FICTION 😐

    identifiably*
    eyeing all along* (manIhatetypos)
    Also, I say article because I read it in an article. I didn’t get Swapan da beyond one or two CCB class 😦

    Anushka Sen — I must add- something I find VERY profitable is reading all the stories mentioned in any class, no matter how closely or distantly linked to whatever was being taught. I recently read Bartleby the Scrivener, simply because the phrase ‘dead letters’ in a Hopkins poem reminded Tintin da of it, and I was left dumbfounded. I’m trying to get as many to read it as possible, but sadly I’ve succeeded with only one person so far. It’s no coincidence that I like her more than most.

    Anushka Sen — Gah, every time I come back to this I have something new to say. Last point, I promise.
    I do think fiction readers (and I can say this for myself) often get into the trap of grabbing another work of fiction right after completing one. And it’s so tempting and goddamn satisfying that one can keep at it and devour more and more fiction without ever feeling the need to reach for theory/secondary reading. And that can be dangerous, because it does help to be able to pursue AND enjoy works which don’t have the ‘what happens next’ or the sheer beauty of language factor. For someone who loves modern poetry more than anything (except Shakespeare), it was very difficult for me to read anything that didn’t thrill my ears or could be read and reread easily, NOR had a narrative. But I realise now that there’s a LOT lurking in criticism which is important to know: most of all, it can streamline thoughts that appear random and floaty but can be put together far more forcefully. And if one can keep an action-and-reaction thing going between the personal responses to the text and thoughts learnt from criticism, by responding to and modifying both- that really is the best. For me, the need to read ‘less theory’ hasn’t even arisen, I should probably be comfortable reading far more. But that in no way should, or will impinge upon my fiction reading habits. That would be murder.

    Debdatta Ganguly — A certain text can have various readings. Theory merely aids you through some of them.

  2. I just read everything. But I also tend to read quickly and require rereadings to get the full effect of a text. I find that I just want T to read everything that I do so that I can bounce critiques off of him. πŸ˜› But heavens forbid he ask me to read something! I, at least, recommend GOOD books. πŸ˜‰

    i hadn’t noticed a link necessarily between narrow world views and narrow readings but I wouldn’t be surprised by it. Also, I find people who only stick to one genre equally as likely of idiocy as those who read bestsellers. (cough sci fi/fantasy fanatics cough)

  3. Gautam Benegal Oh so very true. And you described the Comp. Lit dept as well in the first two paras. Though our profs were very lovably fuddy duddy.

    Rimi N Very glad to hear it πŸ™‚ I don’t know many Comp Lit people — you, and maybe Tara? Were you CompLit, Nayantara Mazumder?

    Ruma Chakravarti I do judge non readers…living as I do in a land where people are happy to pay 60 dollars each week for two bourbons which they will excrete the next day, but limit their reading to New Idea and each other’s tattoos because books an shit cost money…more people read less because they choose to than do because of lack of opportunity, my view any way. Agree with everything else wholeheartedly..:)

    Gautam Benegal Nabanita di has written intros for both Bultu’s translation of Pagla Dasu and my translation of Tuntuni’r boi. Goddamn it my eyes really misted over when I read her write up.

    Rimi N Can’t wait for it, Gautam. Partly because of her introduction. Bultu ke btw?

    Ruma Chakravarti Arunava Sinha …tai toh GB?

    Gautam Benegal Bultu is Arunava Sinha. Onek translation korey. Bultu from JUDE.

    Gautam Benegal How we take translators for granted…Can anyone imagine Marquez being so widely appreciated without…http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/03/15/gabriel-garcia-marquezs-t_n_499693.html

    Nayantara Mazumder Yes it is true it is, I is from Comp.Lit πŸ™‚ And I am sharing this. As usual.

  4. Bimbabati Sen I remember this post by S. And the reading thing, Rimi, is very VERY true. I work for a publishing house, and am daily shocked by how little my colleagues (except for those who come from JUDE and a handful of others) have read/ are interested in reading. You would think a publishing house, of all places, would have people who read for the heck of it. Ah well.

    Abhranil Das I don’t remember who said this, but he said it right: ‘Those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t.’

    Rajib Das Sharma β€œDon’t be amazed if you see my eyes always wandering. In fact, this is my way of reading, and it is only in this way that reading proves fruitful to me. If a book truly interests me, I cannot follow it for more than a few lines before my mind, having seized on a thought that the text suggests to it, or a feeling, or a question, or an image, goes off on a tangent and springs from thought to thought, from image to image, in an itinerary of reasonings and fantasies that I feel the need to pursue to the end, moving away from the book until I have lost sight of it. The stimulus of reading is indispensable to me, and of meaty reading, even if, of every book, I manage to read no more than a few pages. But those few pages already enclose for me whole universes, which I can never exhaust.”
    ― Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

    Beautiful post Rimi – thanks for sharing πŸ™‚

    Abhijit Gupta Gautam Benegal: A correction: it’s not Bultu’s translation of Pagla Dashu, he did one of the 25 stories. He led the workshop which produced the translations though, with a total of 17 translators. πŸ™‚

    Manjari Chakravarti mmmm, i think i know who that fluffball is- its true, reading runs in the family. Well written you both πŸ™‚

    Manjari Chakravarti I feel a wee bit guilty these days- my reading has been restricted to FB posts- im hoping it is a phase. In the meantime, i enjoy what my friends put up- and very good readiong a lot of it is, too!

    Lali Chattoraj Sengupta Rimikins – I am somewhat ashamed to say that I operate with several mental blocks. I judge people who read foil-stamped airport books, I knew I would never be able to live with someone who did not read voraciously, and yes, there is subliminal judgment element there too. For myself, I prefer reading anything to not reading at all, and my husband has also been known to read train timetables in British Rail trains, left by someone..So you are in good company, Rimikins, may our tribes increase…

    Mallika Ganguly I am very judgemental about people who dont read because I cant imagine a situation where I will not or shall not read . Its like breathing . We read and spend on books without thinking . I think the first thing I did on earning my money was to splurge on several books . I am aso shocked by people who think that fiction begins and ends with Chetan Bhagat .

    Lali Chattoraj Sengupta Chetan Bhagat – let’s not go there, Khamokha gaal khaabe majh raate lok ta, hoytoe shukhonidra nichchhe kothao…

  5. Dipanjan Chattopadhyay “Some people read for instruction, which is praiseworthy, and some for pleasure, which is innocent, but not a few read from habit, and I suppose that this is neither innocent or praiseworthy. Of that lamentable company am I. Conversation after a time bores me, games tire me and my own thoughts, which we are told are the unfailing resource of a sensible man, have a tendency to run dry. Then I fly to my book as the opium-smoker to his pipe.” — The book bag – Maugham.

    Rimi N I’d rather be addicted to the printed word than have a consuming passion for the voice(s) in my head. Indeed, I think Srin’s point was that a lack of indiscriminate reading makes us burrow dangerously into our own heads. But then again, Dipanjan, your thoughts have always been very interesting to me. I positively look forward to them. I can’t quite believe you run dry.

    Rimi N Ruma mashi, that’s exactly how I spent my first paycheque. When I came home from the US, I lugged one whole extra suitcase of books, and that’s not counting the boxes I left behind and the rare scanned texts on my comp.

    Rimi N And Lali, my response to the timetable story will have to be a whole post in itself. For now, let this suffice: you and your lovely husband are people after my own heart!

    Dipanjan Chattopadhyay The last comment was a quote, but describes me rather well. I have mixed feelings about my reading OCD. I am perpetually worried about not having enough reading materials in my car trunk. When my phone dies on long car drives, I am more worried about what I am going to read in roadside restrooms than not being able to call 911 in an emergency. And let’s not go into the hardships of sneaking printed materials into office restrooms in a pre-smartphone world.

    Manjari Chakravarti I am into borrowing books, myself. I cant really afford to buy a lot of books so i dont- ive found that borrowed books are just as good as bought ones. And if i want to read them, i can always borrow them again- case in point Timothy Mo’s Sour Sweet -which i borrowed from Samantak three times over a two-year period, and a number of others which i keep going back to. An added dimension of this would be the illustrations if any in certain books- for instance i refuse to read Onions in the Stew in any form apart from the tattered Reader’s Digest version i have- with its illustratioins, it’s for me unreadable in any other form. I have been mourning the loss of a certain copy of Grandmother and the pRiests by Taylor Caldwell which a friend of Mallika’s borrowed and never returned. No other copy will do. Another fetish is Growth of the Soil, Knut Hamsun. I MUST read it once a year, every year. Such are my OCD- type tendencies or call them what you will πŸ™‚ i keep reverting to the same books over and over again, like a certain comfort food…

  6. Patrick Ghose Lovely sentiments, Rimi, and with which I empathize, but I think void in its ability to score a point with young people who don’t read at all, whether books, newspapers, magazines, et al. Yet we have some of the largest selling newspapers in the world, huge book fairs all over and I have to wonder how, and why. My own experience shows that the youth are far more keen to be performers. It’s convenient to blame tv and Holly/Bolly/Tollywood for such aspirations but you only have to look at our schools where the habit of reading beyond text books should ideally be inculcated. We had mandatory library periods twice a week till class 8 and one was compelled to borrow at least one book. I don’t believe that happens any more. Yesterday’s papers reported on ISC schools wanting to do away with the teaching of English literature altogether as it apparently hinders the studying of the sciences. Schools today have any number of fests, including interschool ones and cultural events. Even tutorial homes have fashion design shows. All performance oriented. Somehow culture as seen by them does not include books and reading/recitation. Yet admission tests for professional courses like law, management and even fashion design, expect a profiency in the English language which can only come from reading widely, and promiscuously, as you put it. So what are we who read voraciously, have read for yonks, and will continue to do so going to do about it other than pat ourselves on the back, plump our feathers and sneer at the unread?

    Sunayana Roy True, JU knocked the snob out of me. My father expected I would come away from Uni with more ideas of how English should be, and all I came away with was a vastly increased tolerance of the many ways it is.

    Sunayana Roy Patrick Ghose We can encourage our friends, children, their friends, neices and nephews and so on to borrow from our books. We can discuss our books with them. Sometimes I come across a child who enjoys reading but whose parents don’t really have the time or knowledge to take that interest further; I am happy to share with those kids books that I otherwise jealously guard. I have met lots of adults who have an interest despite no encouragement from home or school who have no idea what they might like to read and they enjoy browsing through my books. They don’t always borrow but there is often a discussion, comparisons of reading tastes and styles and I think that is also a good thing.

    Patrick Ghose Sunny, its not our kids or are our friends’ kids I’m worried about. It’s young people like the ones I occasionally teach who are trying to become professionals or looking at careers. My own library is heavily borrowed from by kids I know.

    Sunayana Roy I’m OK with working on the little that I can reach, Pat. I myself benefited from all the people who helped me in their small ways (people really opened their libraries up to me, and now that I’m older and more protective about my books, I know I can never be that generous!) My point is, these are the people who would be a part of the non-reading world without the help/interference of the readers around them.

    Rimi N Pat, I more than empathise with your disillusionment, believe me. But I think the point of my post was precisely that JUDE, assumed to be the snooty ivory seat of the intelligentsia, actually taught us how limiting, shallow and anti-intellectual snobbery actually is. As Sunny says, it’s helped me shed a lot of prejudices — sociocultural ones, even — that I learnt at school, for instance, or inherited from a middle-class, educated urban Bengali upbringing.

    I don’t think performance and reading are necessary mutually exclusive, either. It’s rather, as you said, that young people face active discouragement for reading (and consequently for thoughtful, reflective tendencies) and are pushed towards the more instant-gratificatory pop-performances. But agreeing again with Sunny, I think we can all do tiny little bits to counter this. I gift all my nephews and nieces books, exclusively, for instance. To my nieces in LMB/Loreto type places, I also make it a point to give Bangla books, because I’ve no hope they’ll be taught to be properly b/triilingual at school. Little drops of water, you know.

  7. Nice, very nice. To cut the long story short, if books don’t sell and if people do not read books (and I’m hinting at fiction mostly) a major section of ex-JUDE-ans would be or could become unemployed.And the editing publishing course may no longer thrive. Who’d read a book when a movie is cheaper, a daily soap showcases entire books with elan and one has great sets, good looking men and women, music and what not. Why delve into a text?

    But then, which industry is thriving except electronics?

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