The magic books can do

When its late in the night to call up a friend to rant about a cussed, difficult day, and equally late to wake up those at home who would have a sympathetic ear to lend, I have found unexpected comfort in reading. Not anything that professes to help, but any thoughtful, sincere piece of fiction or non-fiction, by nearly anyone, on nearly anything!

The other night I went through three pieces by three different authors on three quite unrelated things. One by Amitav Ghosh ( on the deep influence of his stay in Egypt in his 20s on all his subsequent writing; another an excerpt of a new book about Gandhi’s last day and a third a short piece by a widely regarded spiritual leader whom I’ve usually felt no affinity with.

By the time I was halfway through the first piece, I was already feeling better, less bogged down by the various complaints I had had about the day and the part I had played in making it insufferable. And it wasn’t only a sense of distancing from the acute unease I was feeling about nearly everything that had transpired but a kind of illumination on the experience itself.

Ghosh’s piece made me marvel at how self-reflective and thoughtful his younger 24 year old self was in having decided to lose himself in a new but culturally familiar country for the reasons he mentions; the book excerpt made me think of how liberating it is to consider death the way Gandhi seemed to have as a final, celebratory release and ‘return’ and the short piece by the guru made me think of how nearly everyone who has committed herself to a life of mindful reflection has something vital to say to those of us toiling away in samsara.

And yet none of this discounts the intense feeling of defeat and loss that can engulf us some days — triggered by in hindsight some of the most banal complaints against the world. But picking up something to read on such days does something special — it pats down big feelings and puts them in place without a trace of condescension and reassures us the way good friends do that this too shall pass.