With the beginning of the New Year begins, or seems to begin, the season for literature. The Jaipur Literature Festival marks the onset of our reading year by overburdening us with new titles to be read, new discoveries to be made. One of the reasons I like attending the annual event has to do with this idea of literature as discovery.
In another era, such discoveries were made in public libraries, where one could spend whole days following reference books and catalogues that spurred you on from one title, one author, to another, as though there were no tomorrow. Some years ago, I travelled to the city of Cleveland in Ohio, USA, where I spent a couple of months doing student jobs. On Saturdays, I would invariably head downtown, to the massive Cleveland Public Library, where I would walk along the bookshelves — spread across the many floors and sections, with well-stocked shelves dedicated to literary criticism and art history — as if I were walking the streets and alleyways of some unfamiliar city.
This is where I discovered some of the writings of the American critic Harold Bloom, whose voice led me onwards: to some of the central figures of his “Western canon”. I soon reached a point where reading what Bloom had to say about various poets and authors wasn’t as important for me as finding out who those poets and authors were. At the Cleveland Public Library, I started an average Saturday with scanning the indices and content tables of Bloom’s critical volumes, and following their leads. No sooner had I come across the mention of Turgenev’s A Hunter’s Sketches in one of Bloom’s books than I rushed straight to the “Russian authors” section of the library on one of its upper floors, desperate to break new literary ground.
The trouble was that even after getting my hands on an English translation of Turgenev’s masterpiece at this library, I was far from willing to sit down and actually read it, just as I had skipped reading what Bloom had to say about that book. But during this phase of mine, as a reader, the thing that seemed infinitely more exciting than engaging with a text was discovering it. Finding out that such and such writers exist — or existed — in the world, and that their ideas, in their books, are there for the taking, was what galvanised me. This knowledge was empowering for a young reader.
It is while browsing aimlessly at various bookstores in Delhi that I have made some of my most memorable and lasting literary acquaintanceships. What’s important here is the randomness of the discovery you make.
One doesn’t anymore have access to a good public library, especially in a city like Delhi. So now, when in the mood for literary discovery, I tend to gravitate towards bookstores, except that these days, Delhi is short on bookstores, too (see Karan Choudhary’s piece on the last remaining independent bookstores of the city on page 25 of this edition). Yet it is while browsing aimlessly at various bookstores in Delhi that I have made some of my most memorable and lasting literary acquaintanceships. What’s important here is the randomness of the discovery you make: the more random it is, the more forceful its impact.
Milan Kundera’s great, unclassifiable book Testaments Betrayed was something I’d picked up without quite meaning to at some nondescript bookstore in Noida. At the time, my decision to buy the book was also marked by some sort of anxiety, a form of noncommittal unease — as was my decision to start reading the book (and, to my shame, quit reading what I was then reading) on that same evening. But by the time I’d finished reading Testaments Betrayed cover to cover, without so much as an extended entr’acte in the process of perusal, I was convinced of its literary power, and aghast at the hesitation I’d felt at the bookstore while considering to buy it.
Yet my personal discovery of Kundera’s writings — I went on to read more by him, finding great merit in some books, and finding nothing in some — was made all the more memorable because of that moment of hesitation at the bookstore. Come to think of it, what was the probability of me walking into this boring little bookstore in a Delhi suburb, that I don’t visit often; then singling out an author I’d never before read; and finally getting my hands on one of his books that I didn’t want to read? This is what makes the process of discovering new writers so fascinating: the sheer unlikelihood of establishing such a connection. To think that you’d almost missed out on some beloved writer’s work, but for that happy accident at some bookstore or library!
Increasingly these days, with both bookstores and libraries on the wane, literary festivals, in my opinion, provide the backdrop to such accidents. Every day, every hour spent at a literary festival presents to the curious, open-minded reader the scope of discovering new writers. Indeed, the act of discovery in this context is somehow more concrete — the writer is there before you, in person — and therefore more real, than what happens when we accidentally stumble upon great writing in bookstores and libraries.
At the previous few editions of the Jaipur Literature Festival, I got to hear so many different voices, which were new to my ears. But embarrassingly so, I have for the most part failed to seriously listen to these voices: which is to say that I have failed to devote serious reading time to a great many authors I have discovered solely through literature festivals. Which harks me back to the time I spent with Turgenev at the Cleveland Public Library, when discovering books meant much more to me than reading, absorbing and learning from them.