Read for perspective, but don’t win
I usually read two books at once. That’s not at the same time though. It’s not like my eyes are fleeting off one book into another. My fingers aren’t balancing two spines falling into each other. But I read them in turns, one after the other. Not as a sequel, most of the time it results in confusion, but sometimes it allows for parallels.
Do you remember that old game where two rectangular slabs bounce a ball off each other? The objective of the game was to score the maximum number of points by getting the ball past the slabs? The more the ball bounces off the slab, the faster it moves, and the harder the game becomes. But before the eventual capturing of a point, there is a flow between the slabs, translated by the ball’s movement to and fro, which is exciting.
A comparison between a 90s [or 80s, or 70s, who knows?] game and a form of reading may not be apt, but it is how I look at the process. I’ll have to be honest here, I’m not very good at reading. While to some, a good book and a cup of coffee is a nice escape, I find it tedious, or at least once I am a few pages in. But the information retrieved through the process of reading, regardless of the book or the author is unparalleled. Seeing the words on paper, painting the picture in your head, and turning the page with the tip of your finger is an inextricable part of the process
I like to look at this as a feature, not a bug. Because of my inability to sit for long hours with one book in hand, I tend to read like the aforementioned game or to put it in more universal terms, like tennis. A serve on one end returned on the other, and a few rallies later the point is won or lost. A chapter on one end, returned by the other, and a few days later, the book, or hopefully books, if the pace is commensurate, is completed. Either way, I try to recognize when the point is won or lost, and not belabor the mind or the book by dragging forward.
It sure does help if the themes align. Reading about an idea and its iteration, a person and their product or service, or an emotion, and a story is a great way to see multiple dimensions of one theme. Immediate contrasts also work wonders. Reading about two contradictory themes prevents the mind from getting sucked into an echo-chamber. In retrospect, it allows you to think quite differently, either denying one for the other, ranking them, or acknowledging both in their own rights. The process never fails but is often modified.
An example from my own tryst is when I attempted to read the work of Jamie Bartlett in Radicals, with the Jaithirith Rao’s The Indian Conservative. One was telltale into the lives of radical thinkers all over the world and the other a portrait of what it means to be a conservative in modern India considering the rich history of ‘right-wing thought.’
The dichotomy painted together, by Bartlett and Rao is, to me, the necessity of the other. In Radicals, Bartlett ventures into the small-circles of all those absurd, ground-breaking, but noticeable groups tinkering with the world as we know it. From transhumanists, anti-establishment political parties, climate-change activists, and utopian-commune builders, the author builds a case for each group, rationalizes with their cause, but is critical of them in their implementation, the toxicity of approach and their desire to completely overhaul the traditional system. These groups cannot be contained in a single political spectrum, they are outliers. Be it in the realm of human preservation of body and society, immigration, environment, or mind-controlling substances. Wherever they fall they aim to restructure their vicinity and fail to work within the system or with any form of compromise. Structure itself is their opponent.
In the concluding chapter, Bartlett does not dismiss the dramatized grievances of the radicals under the shadow of liberal democracy. He contends that these radicals may either succeed or fail, regardless of the outcome, they will cause a disruption, change the dialogue, and make people take notice. When, and not if, this inevitability surfaces, we must be prepared to comprehend, if not accept, change and be wary of the envelope being pushed beyond control. He writes,
“Citizens should be open to and respectful of outsiders; but they must be equally alert to demagoguery, to false promises, to unrealizable utopians, to scapegoating and to the dehumanizing of others.”
At this juncture when the question falls on what should or should not be discarded for the sake of modernity, conservative thought provides a good balance. Rao provides, through five spheres, an understanding of conservatism through a broader sense and specifically for the Indian mind. Although his writing dwells deep in the history, religion, society, and culture of India, before and after colonial rule, the impetus of conservative thought bringing forth structure and freedom is held strong. While the historical recalls were lost on me, not being a student of history or politics, the crux of conservatism lying in evolution, not revolution, change without leaving behind the essentials of the past and inheriting a skepticism, not prejudice, of the unknown is important given the changing times.
Rao’s writing is primarily centered around India, deriving connotations from the larger Anglosphere, but it applies universally and despite time. In this political climate especially, an individual who is upholding historical values is not excited by revolutions and is critical of the rapid modernization of traditional societal structures, will find support in Rao’s words,
“…we need to be eternally vigilant. A sober temperament and a balanced attitude can always be made to look unfashionable when confronted with hysterical grievance-mongering.”
Through this duality of Rao’s constraint evolution of social thought while understanding, through Bartlett’s in-depth reportage, societal outliers was, personally, a very intuitively parallel process. Reading one in isolation would make you conclude either, “The world’s gone mad with these hippies trying to cryogenically-preserve their psychedelic-infused bodies in a ‘free-love’ cult” or “Why are these damn liberals trying to ruin the economy, society, culture, and education, as we know it?.” A middle-ground between these extremes of action and thought simply allowed a serve to be returned, to make a full circle of the tennis analogy.
While these two books, in combination, aren’t ideals to understand the complex dichotomy of polarising societal and political thought, my chancing upon them, by the master-puppeteer known simply as ‘Amazon’, allowed for an insightful process. Like this pair, there are similar seemingly opposite pairs out there which can help bridge contrasting topics and provide the much-needed perspective from the ‘other side.’ Needless to say, in the current political climate, no matter your nationality or political affiliation, perspective will not go amiss.
If perspective is what you’re after, or what you lack, don’t just pick up ‘another’ book, pick up the ‘other’ book.