Reading non-fiction pays huge dividends

Journalism professor Ramesh Prabhu explains, in a Q&A with his journalist alter-ego Ramesh Prabhu, why it is important to read non-fiction.

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Published: Wed 11 Feb 2015, 1:33 AM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 7:50 PM

Q: I am told you are fond of telling every batch of new students that they should read Longitudes and Attitudes, by Thomas Friedman, if they want to know what makes the world tick.

A: Yes, and I also tell them they should read India Unbound, by Gurcharan Das, if they want to know what makes the country tick. As a bibliomaniac, as a teacher, as someone who believes in the manifold blessings showered on readers by books, I have made it my life’s mission to encourage, even push, people to read. And I’m happy that I have had some success over the years.

Q: Most people I know, especially young adults, seem to prefer fiction. So how do you go about extolling the virtues of non-fiction? Perhaps you can explain by elaborating on your reasons for recommending Thomas Friedman and Gurcharan Das.

A: Gurcharan Das first. Many of us have only a superficial knowledge of the reforms of the ’90s that have transformed India so dramatically. The impact of those reforms is being felt even today. But what was the country like before 1990? How did India change after liberalisation? And why is it important for all of us to grasp the logic underlying this grand economic revolution? You will get the answers to these questions, and more, in Gurcharan Das’s splendid book. Das, a former chief executive of Procter & Gamble India, has a unique insight into the country’s history. He also has a way with words, which makes India Unbound incomparable as an introduction to economics. Really, it is the equivalent of Economics 101. So, knowing how young people shudder at the thought of an economics lesson and knowing how badly they need to understand the subject, I press them to read India Unbound closely.

 Longitudes and Attitudes, on the other hand, offers readers a seat at the international table as Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist, serves up his sharp opinions on “the world in the age of terrorism” (the sub-title of his book, which is a collection of the columns he wrote for the Times). Friedman flies around the world to gather material for his twice-weekly articles, so we get reports — and horizon-widening views — from Riyadh and Moscow, Jakarta and Teheran. Who can say no to this choice cuisine? More to the point, who will want to say no?

Q: Going back to my original question, though, isn’t fiction a better choice? After all, novels transport us to a world that exists in the author’s imagination, and that world becomes ours, too, as we read on. What better way to escape from our humdrum lives!

A: Everyone who knows me knows how crazy I am about books. I have been reading books since I was five or six years old. And like everyone else, I began with fiction. So I know where you are coming from. I agree that novels offer us a way to experience many vicarious thrills. But non-fiction gives us a new perspective on our world as it exists. Reading non-fiction can help us become better persons. Non-fiction can give a boost to our careers.

Q: That’s a bit far-fetched, surely?

A: You have apparently not heard of How Will You Measure Your Life? Or The Last Lecture. A Complaint-Free World. Letters to Sam. A Fistful of Rice. How Proust Can Change Your Life... I could go on. These are just a few of the many wonderful books that I have read in recent years that have not only made me think about my approach to life but have also been an inspiration. I wish these books had been around when I was growing up; they would have made such a big difference to my mindset at a stage in my life when change would have been more welcome, and easier, than it is today.

 I would have been a better journalist and writer, too, if the books available to me now were available when I was beginning my career. The books I am thinking of are, again, just to mention a few, Remembering Mr. Shawn’s New Yorker: The Invisible Art Of Editing; The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight; Breaking the Big Story: Great Moments in Indian Journalism; Writers on Writing: Collected Essays from The New York Times; Essential English for Journalists, Editors, and Writers... there are so many extraordinary books in this category that I feel bad about not being able to name all of them.

 Q: The way I look at it, you seem to be focused on what I think of as self-help books, and books that deal with journalism and writing. What about history, biography, memoir? And business books — they are all the rage today, I understand.

A: I’m glad you’ve brought this up. I am not really a big fan of “self-help” literature; I think of the books I have referred to as “wisdom literature”. I only chose those two sub-genres you mention because, as a teacher, I have found it easier to get young people started on non-fiction when they believe, rightly, that there is a possibility that the books concerned will have a bearing on their future.

But when it comes to non-fiction, I am an omnivore. Want to read a great book dealing with world history? I recommend highly Travels with Herodotus, by legendary Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski, who began his career as a foreign correspondent in India. As for biographies, there is Art Spiegelman’s spellbinding Holocaust narrative, Maus (yes, it is a graphic novel, but who says non-fiction has to be wholly text-based?). Recently I also read Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain — how a man can be both an amazing chef and a gifted writer with an eye for detail beats me.

I have read my share of business books, too — not too long ago, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Inside Drucker’s Brain, billed as the most accessible guide to the essential ideas of Peter Drucker, the inventor of modern management.

 Q: Clearly, there is a wealth of great non-fiction out there to suit all possible tastes.

A: Oh yes. So the sooner you get down to it, the better.


THINK ABOUT IT: “Read, every day, something no one else is reading. Think, every day, something no one else is thinking. Do, every day, something no one else would be silly enough to do. It is bad for the mind to be always part of unanimity.”

Christopher Morley, American journalist, novelist, essayist, and poet

 Coming up in the next installment of “Media Matters”:

What to read (especially if you want to understand the media)

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