The choice to read is always with the reader. If you do not like a book, throw it away. There is no compulsion to read a book. Literary tastes may vary – what is right and acceptable to one may not be so to others. Yet, the right to write is unhindered.
— Madras High Court, July 5, 2016
The freedom to write wholly depends on the reader’s right to choose what they read. And reading can unlock incredible experiences, even if we shut every aperture and leave just a single door or window open to new ideas. If we let our minds dwell inside an impenetrable dark cave, nothing will get inside. We can gain from reading only if we are welcoming of unfamiliar ideas. A guest always arrives with different stories of her own to tell. Reading literature is exactly like inviting a guest to your home. The result is conversation, stimulation, exchange of news and ideas, and good cheer.
Popular literature of today does not raise any questions about our values or shed fresh light on life as we know it. It only addresses the superficial changes taking place around us and ends up glorifying outdated aspects of our culture and civilisation. This kind of writing is prized by readers who prefer the status quo and do not want to read anything that makes them uncomfortable.
Most people believe that the values with which they were brought up are superior to those of others. They hold the protection of those values to be their supreme duty. They cannot tolerate even minor ripples of change. Since they don’t give the values they defend any serious consideration and have no grasp of them, the only armour they possess is their selfproclaimed righteousness. And when they join hands with others like them, they don’t hesitate to aggressively announce their identity. Therefore, there is an urgent and constant need for us to talk and debate on the freedom to read and the avenues available to express disagreement. A writer’s freedom today is in the hands of the reading public.
A reader has many freedoms. To not buy a book, to not read it, to put it down after a couple of pages, or explore it further. She can treasure her favourite book, and read it again and again. She can recommend it or even lend it to other people, and then badger them to give it back. She can praise that book and, if her skills permit, she can even write about it. She can feel elated when it wins a prize. She can then boast about having read that awardwinning book. She can write letters to the author. She can celebrate it in any manner possible.
She can express her disappointment in just as many ways. She can close the book and toss it away. When my daughter was a child, she liked to tear the pages of any book she could lay her hands on. It was very difficult to save books from her. Eventually we found a middle ground. We allocated some books for her pastime — the books we wanted to discard. When she asked for a book, we offered her one from that pile. She tore them down beautifully. Even the books that we don’t like can serve elegant purposes.
The reader can also generously give away the books she doesn’t like, and earn a good name. Who wouldn’t welcome freebies with open arms? She can wrap them up nicely and give them away as gifts. The truth is that many people never unwrap the books they receive as gifts. But we cannot go to a festivity empty-handed, can we?
She can also sell them off at shops that deal in old and used books. She can write scathing remarks on a book and its author. A little more effort and she can even don the reviewer-mask and set about proving that the book cannot pass for literature. She can engage in debate, or create memes about it. She can launch a campaign against that book and persuade others not to read it. There are lots of ways to express our opinion on social media. There are columns where the ‘worst books of the year’ are religiously listed every year.
These are but some of the punishments that a reader can mete out to the book and its author. The cruellest punishment though is if she spots an author she doesn’t like at a literary gathering, goes up to them, tells them that she has read their book, and stops at that. And doesn’t say anything further. I can assure you that that is the most excruciating torture for a writer.
If you think about it, a reader’s freedom is unlimited. And readers should liberally exploit this freedom and employ all possible democratic means to protest or to celebrate literature. If they do, then the freedom to write — on anything, in any manner — would be protected.