Non-required Reading

Are you reading something because you have to read it?

A manual, an email, a textbook, a facebook feed or post, a news article, or a religious book?

It struck me that reading is often a means to an end: I have to read the terms. I need to read through the material. I better have read the instructions…. I have emails to clear!


Reading as a joy seems pretty lost to us these days, safe the few lucky children who still get to luxuriate in it without being rushed off to some class or other.

Perhaps we could borrow the lyrical lilt of the old rhyme, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?”, replacing it with “how does your reading go?” I stumbled upon NON-REQUIRED READING while reading something on Medium or was it an online arts journal. See, I cannot remember (we have way too much information and no time to organise them in our inundated brains!). The title just felt like I had to reach for it, plus the author had a real air of mystery what with a name I could not pronounce: Wistawa Szymborska.

So I did. I reserved it at the library, picked it up a few days later, and it now sits at my bedstand for me to nibble on before I hit lala land. The original appeal came through the author’s credentials. But as I read the book, a translation from Polish, the point of the title began to sink further in.

This book serves no real purpose if you don’t count the rediscovery of the joy of reading as a pursuit! As I turn the pages, I am literally taken from town to city, homes to alleys, habits to habitats, as she skilfully summarises all types of non-fiction books, with much wry wit.

Here are some fun bits from it. Try to see if you can guess the non-fiction subject she is writing about.


“A strict personal politics prevails in the world of opera. Family relationships are prescribed by codes as inviolable as those governing primitive tribes. A soprano must be a bass’s daughter, a baritone’s wife, and a tenor’s lover. A tenor may neither generate an alto not copulate with a contralto. A baritone lover is a rarity, and it’s best if he just settles for a mezzo. And mezzo-sopranos, in turn, should watch out for tenors – fate casts them often as ‘the other woman’ or in the even sorrier role of the soprano’s best friend… . Apart from father, basses ordinarily play cardinals, the powers of darkness, prison functionaries, and, in one case, the director of an insane asylum… . I admire opera, which is not real life, and I admire life, which is at times a true opera.” (Musical Chairs)


“A little bird sits in the tree / And wonders at humanity, / Even the wisest man around / Can’t tell where happiness is found./ 

Still you’re better off not knowing like a human than knowing like a bird. Birds are lunatics with no clues as to their own lunacy. Instinct, which orders them to fly off every fall and resettle somewhere else that may be tens of thousands of miles away, only appears to be kindly and concerned with their well-being. If all that mattered were better food supplies in a more temperate climate, more than species would end its protracted flight sooner. But these demented creatures fly on, over mountains, where expected storms may smash them into cliffs, over seas, in which they may drown. Nature’s goal is not even ruthless selection: there are circumstances that destroy both strong and weak alike… . Nature plays an even more diabolic trick on the lemming, a gentle creature dwelling in burrows. Every so often these burrows get overcrowded, so the lemmings abandon their long-time homes en masse. To start another colony nearby? Not a chance – they start walking, just walking, for such is their hormonal destiny. They keep walking until they reach the sea, in which they drown. This species continues only thanks to those few individuals who remain t home in the old burrows.” (Compulsory Happiness)


“Children like being frightened by fairy tales. They have an inborn need to experience powerful emotions. Andersen scared children, but I’m certain none of them held it against him, not even after they grew up… . He speaks to them not only about life’s joyous adventures, but about its woes, its miseries, its often undeserved defeats. His fairy tales, peopled with fantastic creatures, are more realistic than whole tons of today’s stories for children, which fret about verisimilitude and avoid wonders like the plague. Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays (as today’s moral tales insistently advertise, though it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way in real life), but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned. And it’s funny, lain funny!” (The Importance of Being Scared)


“Others may seek out junk shops only when pressed by dire necessity.; they drop in for inspiration and rummage among the chisels for an hour, purring with pleasure. You have to be born a handyman, you can’t suddenly become one in midlife… . The handyman has a flamboyant boyhood; he has learned how to balance on death’s edge amid corrosive liquids, broken glass, short circuits, and experimental detonations… . This book is thus intended for those credulous clods whose hearts it floods with the false hope that the first hook pounded into a wall as per its direction will be a hook well-pounded. This foray into home improvement will inevitably end with a call to a repairman, who will dolefully drag out his arrival for two weeks. And here I see the single reason for reading this book. You can chat with this repairman with the same finely feigned air of mastery that the poet Julian Tuwim once used on his locksmith. And what good is life without conversation?” (Home Improvement)


“The authors stray far beyond their titular topic int heir ardor for instruction. Apart from mishaps at home, they cover accidents in the yard, the forest, and the river. And they close their useful booklet with a chapter on ‘Procedures in the Event of Mass Injuries (Natural Disasters, Atom Bombs). The reader’s astonishment is complete, since nothing in the book, whose dust jacket depicts a colourful house standing on a bandaged leg, had even hinted at such a conclusion… . There’s not way to be sure that the next book off the presses won’t be a handybook on the care and feeding of infants that culminates with the apocalypse.” (Nowhere to Hide)


The answers:

  1. The Opera Handbook
  2. The Enigmatic Lemming
  3. Hans Christian Andersens’ Fairy Tales
  4. Repairing and Redecorating Your Apartment
  5. Accidents in the Home


I conclude that this reading is far from required indeed, though on nights when I have enough wakefulness left in me, I look forward to reading this Nobel Prize collection of prose!


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