I was 10, in 4th Standard, when a book I read first changed my life. It was a book called Sands of Time by Sidney Sheldon, with a steamy sex scene.  Joy overcame the initial shock when I realised that this is what grown-ups get to do which kids don’t, I couldn’t wait to become a grown-up, and to-date I believe that is the only perk of grown-up-hood, which I first encountered in a book. Come to think of it, it was the first self-help book I read, no pun intended.

Over the years, books have changed my lives again, and again, and again. Until my life is exactly same as it ever was. Every time a book changes my life, some other book contradicts it and changes it back again to where it was. Over time, I reluctantly but undeniably came to the conclusion that reading is overrated. It is a socially acceptable gargantuan waste of time.

Please don’t get me wrong. Reading is useful. If you ignore the fact that reading too much causes diabetes, obesity, ruins your sex life because you are more interested in your book than your wife sleeping next to you, reading is the best antidote to boredom. If I were to choose a hobby again and again, I would probably choose reading. But that is what it is. A hobby. Just like stamp collecting or playing video games. I rate it just above lying on the couch binge-watching that Netflix or HBO TV series that is supposed to elevate your ‘taste’ above mere mortals and brag about it to friends while you waste away that entire day, month, year, zindagi watching someone else live instead of living yourself.

Because if you think about it, isn’t that what reading is? Intellectual masturbation on someone else’s thoughts? Going AHA over some idea in a ‘paroseli thali’ instead of thinking for yourself? For make no mistake, reading a lot will ensure you never think for yourself. You never learn to think for yourself. Your mind turns into a hotch-potch of ideas borrowed, remembered, half-forgotten, half-twisted – a thought from this book, a story from that, a memory from another. Reading is just second hand thinking. And now, it has gotten even worse, with Goodreads reviews and book recommendations and 10 best books of 2016, and all that rubbish. First you were reading someone’s thoughts, and now first you read someone else’s thoughts about how the first chap’s thoughts are, and THEN you read that chap’s thoughts. So everyone is reading Khalid Hosseini once and then suddenly everyone is reading The girl with the dragon tattoo because your highly read friend recommended it. Echo chambers, anyone?

We were once in a situation where we had procured an elusive bottle of red wine in our dear dry state, but we soon realised we didn’t have a corkscrew to open up the damned cork. We were thirsty and there was the red liquid provocatively staring at us like sunny leone waiting to be undressed. I, devoid of a single original thought or idea ever since I started to rely on reading, did the obvious thing. Can anyone guess what it was????

I googled. How to open a wine bottle without a cork screw.

My friend, a chap who has never corrupted his fingers with the feel of a book that wasn’t thrust upon him by his teachers, but who can hit a cricket ball a long long way, got going with a screw driver he found from somewhere while i was googling. And lo, sunny leone was undressed in no while.

A mind can solve a problem on its own if you let it – but excessive reliance on information or thoughts of others makes it lazy. Reading does that to you.

Reading is also one of the best ways of escapism.  I remember a friend’s daughter who had come to a dinner party with a book, and hardly looked up during the whole dinner, so engrossed was she. At that phase, he, not being a reader himself, being a liver of life instead of a watcher of life, was highly enamored of this trait of hers. Me, i could see what it was. It was a was a way of avoiding boredom, a way of avoiding an encounter with the real world, a world which could sometimes disappoint, but most times, it would enrich, elevate you if you let it. Dont all of us readers rely on our books to allow us to not see THAT uncomfortable fact we are trying to escape from?

While we had this discussion, someone wrote – How can this ART be overrated.  Lets make no mistake. Reading isn’t an art. Writing is an art. Reading is a skill, just like understanding classical music, or running, or a sport. And you can get really good at a skill if you practice hard enough. Lets not delude ourselves in calling ourselves artists.

The two leaders of the biggest democracies of the world haven’t read a single book in their life. And we have sets of intellectuals everyday, supposedly wisened from all the information they collect by reading from whichever sources they can find. Can anyone doubt who is out of touch with reality more?

And about ‘learning’ things from books, about ‘improving’, I say – good for you. Let’s see how long that effect lasts. Let’s see how long that book you read about procrastination away from procrastinating. Let’s see how much influence Dale Carnegie has on making you rich. An hour with Savjibhai Dholakia will teach you more about money than Rich Dad, Poor Dad. An hour on the cricket field will enrich you more than Ram Guha’s A Corner of the Foreign Field, give your limbs some exercise, breathe the fresh air, shout at the top of your voice. Don’t do things just in your head, like a reader. If books could make you the master of stock market, everyone would be a Buffett, wouldn’t they? You learn things by doing them, not by reading about doing them. Use it as a tool, not as a crutch. The constant stream of information just dulls you, it doesn’t enrich you, it doesn’t put you in control.

And while you are at it, those detective thrillers and the new Japanese authors we rave about, lets not pretend they are anything more than tremendous fun, shall we? And better stay away from serious books that pretend to have answers to life, universe and everything – we all know what happens to those who take the Bible and the Quran and the Geeta too seriously, don’t we?

That leaves us with Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and Kafka and Austen. And those brilliant sentences which are true intellectual masturbation gems. Never read a book by someone who isn’t dead, as a wise man put it once. If they survive the test of time, they deserve your attention – but then It is YOU who needs to put in that effort, and let’s be honest – we have the attention span of a 2 month old sparrow these days.

So I have a solution for that too. Next time you feel the urge to know everything about the government clerk who leads a miserable life, go visit your nearest Mamlatdar ki kacheri instead of picking up Dostoevsky. Ask the names of people who come and visit you everyday – the chaiwala, the watchman. Ask their stories. Dont read about dead people to feel good about yourself.

You will be much real. Much grounded. Much free. With loads of real life friends, not imaginary ones in a book.