[Column] The joy of reading

Sports, digital media and studying; it all kept Vishal Onkhar away from reading literature for years. Until now!

“I grew from a bright and hopeful MSc student to a tired and somewhat jaded PhD candidate in the final stretch of his endeavour.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

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A young boy sits in solitude in a school library, brows furrowed in concentration, his nose in a book. The afternoon is quiet, save for the cries of capering children and the cawing of crows in the distance. This place has become one of his favourite haunts, an avenue of escape from the torrid heat outside and a chance to disappear within the pages of a book, enveloped by the heady scent of old tomes. He is a voracious reader, countless hours devoted to studying the yellowed pages of the English classics, poring over mythology, and devouring fantasy epics, each more vivid than the last. The librarians over the years he counts as some of his best friends. Curiously though, he has never once borrowed a novel to take home; it is almost as if the library is a portal to magical realms from whence it is forbidden to retrieve objects! At this moment, he is engrossed in Moby Dick, chasing the white whale from sea to shining sea aboard the vessel of his imagination. The sudden ringing of bronze bells shakes him out of his reverie; the lunch break is over, and it is time for class again. That little boy is me.

The final nail in the coffin was the beginning of my scientific journey

And yet he is not – now merely a phantom lost to the mists of time. For in the years since, I have often gone months at a stretch without immersing myself in a book. As I suspect have many people, especially academics, because engineering textbooks and PhD theses hardly count. In my case, this decay of regular reading habits began in high school, when literature was sacrificed on the altar of ‘cooler’ pursuits like table tennis, badminton, and socialising. It was also around this time that I started to take writing seriously. The soaring popularity of digital media did not help; sensational social media, tantalising TV, mesmerising movies, and vibrant video games were all just a click away and promised ever more exhilaration in ever shorter intervals. Ironic then, that I invested more time bingeing these condensed distractions than I might have spent with my head buried in a novel.

The final nail in the coffin was the beginning of my scientific journey, which wrought the downfall of the inquisitive reader. Reading ceased being a leisure pastime and became a means to an end – answering exam questions, solving assignment problems, and citing references. So much so that I sometimes still struggle to muster the patience to read a novel from cover to cover, when once I would make light work of even the most ponderous volume in a night. But on the occasions I do manage it, oh boy, it is like being a child again and reunited with a long-lost friend! I imagine this is how every avid reader in humanity’s long history has felt, since such a thing as reading was invented.

Thus, for my birthday this year, I bought myself a selection of ancient literature from far and wide. In an age of AI-generated content that surfaces from the bowels of the internet every second, it felt almost therapeutic to return to mankind’s sparser, humbler roots. And in the spirit of Easter, I prayed that my love of the written word would rise again anew. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go finish my books.

Vishal Onkhar is from Chennai, India and pursuing his PhD on self-driving cars at TU Delft. He is an avid museum goer and chess player, but also harbours a soft spot in his heart for dancing and petting cats. He doesn’t drink coffee, but good books, music, and film have the same effect on him.

Columnist Vishal Onkhar

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