My earliest memories are of sitting on the floor of a bookshop and gazing at pictures in a book. I do not know if these are actual memories or if the image is imprinted in my brain from the stories told to me by my parents. The context here is that, soon after my birth, my parents moved to Hyderabad. That was first time they were living by themselves and outside of a large joint family system. My mother, running ragged between the responsibilities of her teaching job and household work, would plonk me on the floor with a stack of picture books and, through a continuous system of positive reinforcement, ensured that learning and entertainment went hand in hand. So, by the age of six, I had raced through Enid Blyton; by the age of eight, Roald Dahl; and by the age of ten, I was reading pretty much whatever I could get my hands on. I won dozens of general knowledge quizzes, my language was considered excellent and I learned about the mechanics of sex, second-hand that is, way earlier than my peers and then had to pretend that I didn’t know anything about it.
I realized early on that I tended to be a better learner if I saw something, rather than hear about it. Even today, most verbal instructions tend to fly right out of my brain whereas visual cues stay imprinted within. So if the elders in my family were to tell me, as a child or teen, to act in a certain way, such as act modestly or talk softly or behave in a way that showed integrity, I wouldn’t understand what they meant. How do verbal commands translate to behavioral changes on a day-to-day basis? But the story in a book, say, a character who verbally commits to something, but actually thinks something else and does something completely different, thereby showing clear signs of a lack of integrity, made things a lot clearer and helped me shape my actions or behavior differently.
Needless to say, I was a bit of an introverted recluse for most of my teenage years, preferring to escape into the relative clarity of a book rather than the messy reality with its verbosity. During my graduate studies, sitting in a lab by myself, on the other end of the planet from my family (okay, not exactly!) and desperately missing them, I would many times translate my situation into a story, to better understand what the underlying problem might be and how I ought to go about solving it.
The flip side to this is that I grew quite dependent on books, especially when it came to escaping stressful situations. It took me a while to understand that this actually was a problem. These days, I have a system: I keep a little piece of paper where I count off the days when I have not read books. After about a book-less fortnight or so, I treat myself to a couple of novels. Thus rejuvenated, I can get back to real life again!
That’s a fairly interesting technique, Varsha! The excess of everything is bad, and books probably are no exception to that.
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