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READING SPECIAL

Getting a fix from reading

I enjoy all forms of storytelling, even movies and TV shows, but for this story junkie, sitting in front of a screen lacks the intimacy of picking up and opening a book

I am a story junkie and books are the quickest way for me to get my fix.

I love to be entertained. Who doesn't? Most forms of entertainment involve stories, whether expressed through song, movies, books, theatre or tales told at bedtime or mealtime to ensure a hyperactive child sleeps or eats.

When I was a child, my grandparents told me stories culled from Aesop's Fables, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Sometimes they forgot names or the sequence of events in my favourites, so they bought me picturebooks I could read. I would read them the bits they had forgotten and correct them whenever they slipped up on retelling.

My father told me stories in silly voices. My mother read to me and my brother at bedtime. I loved how their tones changed with each character, from a low-voiced growl when a lion spoke to the high pitch of a rabbit.

But after a while the bedtime storytelling sessions became too slow. Turn the page, read faster! Like any story junkie, I was dying to know what happened next.


ST ILLUSTRATION: ADAM LEE

The quickest way to find out was to read for myself. To feed my story hunger, I was taken weekly to the local library. I can't remember how it felt to first see a room full of books but all my life, libraries and bookstores have been my temples, my sanctuaries, my holy sources of entertainment.

As I read, I got to invade new countries or inhabit new lives. Within the pages of each book were stories that made me laugh or cry or sit open-mouthed in amazement. There were people who did things I never knew could be done, who encountered weird, wonderful, wicked creatures and whose banishment from the world of Narnia set me sobbing in sympathy.

I read C.S. Lewis and Enid Blyton and gnashed my teeth on learning that the Five Find-Outers had only a few adventures compared to the Famous Five. I read stories about World War I flying ace Biggles by Captain W.E. Johns and jumped up and down in glee on learning that Biggles fought through World War II as well.

I read H. Rider Haggard's tales of murder and treasure-hunting in Africa, the comedies of P.G. Wodehouse, the mysteries of Agatha Christie, the socially conscious novels of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay and a translation of ancient Indian poem Meghaduta (Cloud Messenger) by Kalidasa because my mother or aunt or grandparents had all these on their bookshelves.

I enjoy all forms of storytelling, even movies and TV shows, but sitting in front of a screen lacks the intimacy of picking up and opening a storybook. The screen is a barrier between fan and fictional world. Too much is already decided for the viewer: the look of the characters and their environment. The pacing may be either too slow or too fast.

I am not alone in feeling stifled by screen storytelling. Fans of TV show Star Trek: The Original Series have been writing and sharing their own versions of Gene Roddenberry's creations for decades, often printing and binding copies to exchange at fan conventions.

I can take my time going through text. I might speed through a page-turner or read some pages slower than others, lingering on passages that resonate deeply.

I decide what the characters and their environment look like and sound like. When I re-read The Lord Of The Rings, I know that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote the forest elf Legolas Greenleaf with short, black hair and not Orlando Bloom's ridiculously long blonde locks that director Peter Jackson decided on in the movie. Yellow offers no camouflage in a dense thicket. Long, loose hair will snag on thorns.

As a story junkie, the appearance of digital books sent me into seventh heaven. I read hundreds on my cellphone or a borrowed Kindle. I exhausted the online Gutenberg archive and The Online Books Page hosted by the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. The National Library's Overdrive app sent me an error message: "You have borrowed and returned too many books in a short time. Please wait to borrow again."

Numerous studies show that readers have deeper intellectual and emotional engagement with text on paper than on screen. In other words, digital books are the equivalent of seeing ice-cream in a tub behind a glass counter. Print books are the treat piled into a cone and put in your hand.

The tangible nature of a physical book makes reading a delightfully sensual experience. Each new title is a new love affair in miniature or an old flame rekindled. The spine or cover catches the eye. The title and back-cover blurb quicken interest. The sensation of rough or matte paper sliding against fingertips has the heart beating quicker as the pages are turned and a different reality is revealed.

I still don't understand everything I read. I read those books anyway, out of interest, sometimes to impress. I discuss books with other readers. Sometimes I learn new things. Sometimes I scream at the page for the writer's idiocy - Fifty Shades Of Grey should have been printed on a boomerang given the number of times I felt like throwing it at walls. Sometimes I throw myself down, face-first, into a pillow to escape a plot tragedy.

I read for escape, for knowledge, for affirmation that I am not alone in the universe - hooray, this character feels the same way I do!

I read because I want to, not because I have to. I read because I'm a story junkie.

We are all born story junkies. And it is so easy to get our fix: just open a book.

More Reading Special stories here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'Getting a fix from reading'. Print Edition | Subscribe