Why I Read

By Hammad Ali

How does a reading habit evolve over time, and what can it bring to your life? One lifelong reader examines the value of this habit

I grew up in a house filled with books and reading materials. My family subscribed to a newspaper, and several of the magazines that used to be a thing in the Dhaka of the 90s. As I learnt to read, our monthly subscriptions began to include children’s and sports magazines meant specifically for me. As I often fondly recall, my parents were never particularly wealthy. When it came to clothes, toys, or even food, my father often reminded us of the fact of being on a tight budget. But looking back I see, he made some decisions of priority, because money was not a deterrent in the magazine subscriptions, or for the trips to the bookstores, Nilkhet or otherwise.

The fact that I read a mile a minute and was finishing new books within a day of getting them, also was not a very big problem. While the neighborhood I lived in did not really have a public library of any sort, I remember a very interesting business model that had cropped up in the small store three doors down. For anywhere between Tk. 2-5, I could “rent” a book for a couple of days. I just had to read it really fast (not a problem) and make sure there was no damage to the book (this one was a bit of a challenge at times). If you think that is pretty much what a library is, I would agree. Except this was one man, running a regular store selling groceries and what not, who just wanted to make a little more revenue. Not to mention that the selection was limited to books where the Tk. 2 fee still got him a safe profit margin.

But out of those less than ideal choices, and those little sacrifices made by my parents, a habit grew. Today, I am pretty much defined by my affinity for books. No matter what my day entails, when I am packing up to head out of home, there is always a book/kindle in my backpack. My motto is “better have a book and no time to read it, than have time to read it but no book handy.” There are benefits to it, too. For a big chunk of college life, I hardly had time to read. But looking back, I realize that was only because I was defining “time to read” as some magical time when all my commitments are settled and I have hours of time to sit down with a book. Ever since I decided to make the most of the odd few minutes waiting in a queue, or for my food in a restaurant, I slowly got my reading groove back. In fact, for the last decade or so, I have been reading a book a week. And my life is better for it.

Of course, once I moved to Canada, finding books became easier. Whether on the campus library or the city public library, I have access to a wide collection, as well as the option to request for titles currently not in stock. I remember reading somewhere, that libraries are the last place left on earth where you are allowed to just be, without the expectation of spending money. And librarians? I cannot think of a cooler job than guarding a trove of books, and guiding each visitor to a part of the treasure that might be particularly meant for them.

But why do we read? Or, because I do not speak for all readers everywhere, why do I read, and read so much? That answer has changed at different times of my life. When I was living in a street narrow enough that two cars could not go down side by side, I read because it opened up a thousand different worlds for me. Sitting by the window in my childhood home, I could be jumping from Baker Street with Holmes, all the way to the moon with Tintin. As life happened, with all its heartbreaks and firsts, I read because it made me realize I am not alone. That even if none of my peers seemed to understand, someone that often lived in a different place, maybe even a different time, knew exactly what I was feeling. And if others had felt this way and managed to write about it, maybe I could too?

That reminds me, I read because it made me want to write. When I read beautifully crafted prose, speaking to me across time and space, it made me want to write that way, too. I do not feel that I have succeeded, but I do not believe I have stopped trying, either. I have tried to stop, plenty of times. But all it takes is one well-written book, and the bug to share my own angels and demons once again rears its head.

Today, I read for a different set of reasons. Work and life always threaten to overwhelm me, and like many that live in these times, I often find myself hanging on to sanity and stability by a mere thread. Yet, there is always that book in my backpack. There is always five minutes when I am not pulled in a hundred directions by the demands of life, and I can crack open a book. Well, these days it is more like unlock a kindle. Still counts. Then, I read. I read about others who have been where I am today – in a Ph.D. program, trying to make a new dent in the world of science. I read about what worked for them, what challenges they faced. And sometimes, every now and then, I read a murder mystery. Convincing myself that being a scientist, is just like being a detective, so I am in fact living my childhood dream.

I read to know that I am not alone, and never have to be. I read because each book is either a welcome new friend, or a childhood memory that is, in some sense, all I can experience now of home.

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