Words by Mikaila Stavrinakis
Last week I was stumped by something so simple as the act of reading a book. I sat lazily on the sofa, semi-upside down, reading Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. In my possession for two years, I knew Bourdain wrote like he speaks, so, I thought, Why read the book when I can just watch him on TV? An unfortunate and common sentiment among many people nowadays. I am not entirely innocent of this charge. As I flip the pages and journey through Bourdain’s tumultuous years in the New York culinary scene, my mother scoffs from the other room.
“Why are you always reading books? Don’t you have anything else to do?”
I was taken aback. Did she seriously ask me this? For centuries, reading has been a legitimate form of entertainment, so why am I being called out for it now? I dismissed her comment entirely in the moment. But as I lay in bed that evening, I thought to myself, Is reading really dead?
An adrenaline rush pulses through my body when I buy a new book. All the fibres in my being light up, and the receptors in my brain go into overdrive. I relish the smell of a freshly opened book, unmarked and uncreased, ready to be consumed, sometimes in a matter of hours. Where some choose to take advantage of online shopping by buying copious articles of clothing, there are roughly five new books waiting at my front door each week. It’s like a drug habit, but not as bad for your teeth. It never takes long for these precious new specimens to become tattered and torn, but that’s half the fun. A well-read, well-loved book will have dog-eared pages, tea stains and pencilled notes in the margins. Maybe a torn page here and there as well; all signs of something that is treasured by its owner.
I can’t help but wonder, though, has there really been a decline in reading? For the life of me, I can’t remember the last time I shared a great book with a friend. I’ve had no trouble recommending a show on Netflix or Stan, obscure arthouse cinema, and even some foreign films. But not a single book in sight. The last time someone even borrowed a book from my mini library, it was a text about the relationship between psychological and physical disorders; in other words, a manual. Great read as it may be, it does not compare to The Metamorphosis.
There is no setting in which I am more content than sitting down with a cup of tea, some biscuits, and basking in the afternoon sun with a heavy tome. The tranquillity of the world around me becomes a stage for the ballet of words which my mind has choreographed for no one else’s pleasure but my own. Imagining the wild African plains so admired by Hemingway in The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber. Navigating the supernatural and dark comedy of Bulgakov’s classic, The Master and Margarita. Even succumbing to the complexities of the sci-fi world Herbert created with Dune. I have never felt more at ease than in the first moments of opening a book. Going completely blank, my mind prepares for the welcome onslaught of words and worlds. My fingers trail the edge of each page as I linger slowly on each word, careful not to gloss over any sentences. Not until my eyes begin to strain and the pages start to blur do I place a tattered piece of paper in the spine and shut the cover. Only then do I sit back, intoxicated, reflective, absorbing the wisdom I’ve been offered from this wondrous creation in my hands. For however long someone stares at the Mona Lisa in The Louvre, the same principle of admiration and love that comes from seeing such a beautiful and mysterious piece of art can be applied to the humble novel. For most, however, it is easier to watch a scene than to read it. We simply no longer have the time for books.
It is not to say that I am a better person for reading, rather than watching. I watch my fair share of reality television, believe me. But society itself has outgrown the need for slow forms of entertainment. Everything has to move at light-speed. Shopping, cooking a meal, downloading a film — all can be done in a matter of seconds. We are losing track of the simple pleasures in life. So, whilst many would sit down to a Netflix binge with a cup of ramen, I will be listening to my beef bourguignon bubble away on the stove, devouring the classic literature that shaped the world we live in today. The art of the novel is lost, and it is up to us to come together and find it again. And to answer my mother’s question: No, I don’t have anything else to do. Now leave me alone while I jump headfirst into this Franz Kafka classic.