One evening many years ago, I had walked across to the park in our colony with a book in my hand. There was no one there except a little boy of about 6–7 years. We knew each other because he lives opposite mine. His mother works as a maid there. He had come over when he saw me sitting on the bench and asked what I had in my hand. It’s a book, I had told him. He wanted to know what a book was. I told him as best as I could (I suggest you try it, too, with a six year old). He was a sharpish child and seemed to understand what I was describing even though I had to explain writing and reading first. Then he got bored and ran off to play.
The same thing happened again a few days ago. But this time, in the usual display of narcissism that all writers have, I was carrying my own book. It had been published earlier this year. I have no idea why I wanted to read it. The same boy was there once again but older now, maybe 10 years old. He came over when he saw me. Have you read this book, he asked. I told him I had written it. Yes, he said, but have you read it? He wasn’t playing the fool. He was dead serious. I changed the subject and asked him about his school. That was clearly a banned topic and he quickly ran off. That night I told my wife what the boy had asked and she said over the 40 years we had been married I had asked the same thing of her many times — about her cooking. I tried to tell her it wasn’t the same thing. But I knew it was. The only difference was that the boy hadn’t meant to insult me.
I have been wondering how many writers actually read their own books in the way others do. Having written a few books, I know when I re-read one of them, it is only to admire my skill at writing and my deep insights. These are invisible to others, however.
So for the past few days I have been wondering how many writers actually read their own books in the way others do. Having written a few books now, I know that when I re-read one of them, it is only to admire my skill at writing and my deep insights. These are invisible to others, however. But I never read them the way, say, my wife would, let alone my sons who take a free copy and use it for propping up broken furniture. As to my friends, I honestly don’t know whether they read them because no one ever says anything. They remain, as the character in Pickwick Papers says, as silent as a drum with a hole in it. But I mustn’t complain. I do the same thing with the books they or their wives and children write.
But such embarrassing confessions aside, that little boy has asked a very important question: when a writer writes, who is he or she writing for? Himself, herself or the reader? I was an editor for 40 years in different newspapers and in academic and other institutions. I was always telling the writers to think of the poor reader who had not only paid for the paper or the book or the report and now was having to plough through a mass of turgid prose. Sadly, very few of them understood what my colleagues and I were saying. But those of them that did, I am happy to report, have done well in their chosen professions, partly because they haven’t written for themselves alone. Indeed, writing is lot like singing or playing an instrument or painting: successful musicians and painters always keep the listener or viewer in mind. It is the only key to success.
So, to get back to what the boy had asked, namely, if I had read my own book, the answer is now clear to me. I haven’t. I had written it, no doubt. But read it? I hang my head in shame.