Tuesday, 17 June 2008


Received from A Toong with thanks. Date: Tue, 17 Jun 2008 22:32:05

Then again, you can pursue the story slowly, line by line, word by word, pausing so often to reflect on what you have just read. You can even write down your own comments on the page margin, and this exercise is like having an exciting dialogue with the author. ...Read on for more...

Food for the soul
Sim Kwang Yang Jun 14, 08 12:57pm

“I remember distinctly the suddenness with which a key turned in a lock and I found I could read…” So wrote Graham Greene in his essay entitled MCPX The Lost Childhood.

We are all shaped by our childhood experience, though in our adult years we tend to lose our innocence, and can recall those important moments only through the hazy cobweb of our memory.

My moment of enlightenment came when I was about four years old. In those impoverished days just after the war in Kuching, my family lived in a rented room in a house with earthen floor. My father used to squat on the floor and, scratching the characters on the floor with a stick, taught me my first Chinese words: cow, goat, grass, and flower.

In those days when most Chinese adults in the neighbourhood were illiterate, my father stood out as a learned person, for he had worked as a teacher back in his kampong in the old country. He spent many hours narrating to me the stories of On the Waterfront, the exploits of the 72 heroes who were driven to become bandits in the mountains by the unjust imperial court of China. He would then write out and teach me the colourful nicknames of the 72 warriors.

With a suddenness with which a key turned in a lock, I remember reading the unabridged version of On the Waterfront for the first time in its entirety in one go. The experience had shaped my reading habit since then. I would skip meals and sleep, just to get to the end of the story, swallowing the entire book without much digestion, going back to it many times in the ensuing years. That was exactly the way I swallowed all the major works of Dostoyevsky when I discovered him in my college days in the frozen landscape of Manitoba, Canada.

Chinese literature

For those of you who are remotely familiar with the Chinese culture, On the waterfront is one of the four greatest classics of Chinese literature, the other three being The Journey West (featuring the great monkey god warrior), The Tale of the Three Kingdom, and The Dream of the Red Chamber. Any modern-day Chinese who does not know an episode or two from these great works of art would not be considered culturally literate. Such a Chinese would not know what he misses in life!

It was easy to plunge headlong into the wonderful world of story books in those days. There was no television, no computer game, and no shopping mall to distract you. As a child, you played games with friends from the neighbourhood, went with them to catch a few small muddy fish from the nearest drain, and you read whatever you could lay your hands on.

By the time I was in primary six in a Chinese school, I discovered the very mature writing of Lu Xin, arguably the most influential Chinese writer in the 20th century. He made some reference to Nietzsche, whom I was to study with a vengeance two decades later. Looking back with a suddenness with which a key turned in a lock, I now realise Lu Xin had jolted me into a primordial form of political discontent even at that tender young age. It was a sobering way of growing up.

In that Canadian university where I studied molecular biology, the liberal arts tradition there also allowed me to take a minor in English literature. It was a training exercise in speed reading. The professor would give us a list of 50 books or so covering all the major authors in the entire history of English literature, and we were supposed to have nodding acquaintance with these greatest creative geniuses in the world within the span of three months.

I could never finish Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and my battle with Middle English was lost
forever. James Joyce proved to be another tough nut, and I wondered why they hailed him as arguably the most profound English writer in the 20th century.

Nevertheless, one did pick up the various techniques of literary criticism. These techniques do not make reading more enjoyable, but allows one to derive greater understanding if a book is to be read seriously and slowly.

Of course, you can read at any pace you like. You can devour the content ravenously, for some books are like that. A week later, you would not even remember what you have read. Pulp fiction tends to do that to you.

Notes on what your read

Then again, you can pursue the story slowly, line by line, word by word, pausing so often to reflect on what you have just read. You can even write down your own comments on the page margin, and this exercise is like having an exciting dialogue with the author.

I like to make notes as I read. For a great writer like Graham Greene, his prose is so concise. So stylish, and so fluid, and his observation of the human condition is so astute, that it is worth the effort to copy down long passages in your note book. After many years, the reading notes also stack up to a huge pile, and it is another pleasurable trip down memory lane to revisit those notes; they reflect your level of maturity and the state of your heart and mind at a particular stage in your life.

Indeed, there are different books that appeal to different stages of your life. In my teens, I found Tolstoy too wordy for comfort. I picked him up many decades later, and could not finish reading his Ana Karina in its entirety; it was too painful to continue the tragic progression of Ana’s self-destruction in the name of passion and love.

As one gets older, and the end of one’s lifespan is in sight, one begins to become very selective about one’s reading material. Pulp fiction and plain entertainment stuff that makes up the bulk of our best selling lists are out. They are a useless drain on the eyes and the grey matter. Instead, I keep going back to the great classics that have withstood the test of time.

Naturally, I congratulate myself for having this compulsive addiction to books. Every pensioner knows that the endless hours in those endless days of retirement would seem impossible to fill. But, in the company of shelves and shelves of books, the days and nights turn into long pleasurable stroll down the imagined lane lined with great minds.

Unlike the television or the computer, books give you that freedom of choice and the space for your mind to explore, reflect, and pause once in a while. There is no sound and fury emitting from the television screen or the computer monitor to assault your senses. You go at your own pace, with the freedom to choose your fare.

These books in your personal library are indeed old friends, whom you have met and cherished through those long years. They sit there quietly, on the shelves, never imposing, but always ready to inform, entertain, and educate.

Unlike the television and the computer, books can be brought anywhere you go. They make great companions when you go for a long trip, making those long hours of waiting at airports, train and bus stations boredom-free.

Read for enjoyment

Books can be read anytime, anywhere, under all weather conditions, in all kind of lights. When good friends meet, they ask one another about the latest books that they have read. They discuss books and their authors. They loan one another books, an unwise practice since I cannot remember how many good books I have lost from loaning them to friends.

When I have a little money, I buy books. Then, if there is any money left, I buy beer. As you flip through the fresh pages of a virgin book, the fragrance of the ink soothes you like the fragrance of flowers.

Many people wax lyrical about the profit of the reading habit, gaining knowledge, getting information, improving English proficiency, and furthering one’s career and so on. In my sunset years, I read for the enjoyment of it. Books give me food for my soul. It is so bad that if I stop reading for a few days, my face staring out from the mirror looks positively repulsive!

These are disturbing and stressful times in Malaysia. The spectre of inflation stares at us at the near horizon. Judges are coming out finally with revelations of how top politicians tried to screw up our judiciary and succeeded. The transport system is still an ungodly mess. Unhappy days are here again.

Fortunately, I still have my books. At the moment, I am reading The Adventure of English – The Biography of a Language by Melvyn Bragg. I think I shall go to the Border Bookstore at Time Square this weekend and see what I can pick up for my next banquet of stories and ideas.

How about you? What good books have you read lately?


sa!nt said...

i was an avid reader...til i enrolled in architecture course.


but recently i've begun to pick up the reading habit again (cos its holiday, duh) and notice that my reading speed has slowed down. also realized that my english writing skills has deteriorated significantly..sigh!

btw, classic is so not my thing..i tried reading stuff like The Great Gatsby and Uncle Tom's Cabin but i couldn't even get pass the first chapter. so now they're collecting dust on my bookshelf.

Anthrex Design Bureau said...

hmm do u all consider Sun Tzu and Modern Hist of China a Classic?


BADesign said...

no CL.. those r not classics.. those are ANCIENT.. LOL

ian ng said...

haha...not sure about Modern Hist of China, but Sun Tzu's 'Art of War' is.

i'm not so hung up on the traditional classics myself. if u like them, good; if not, that's ok. Sometimes i find it's the context that doesn't grab me, i mean the culture and period of the setting.

I usually go for a darn good yarn--a good story well told, something that teaches the human heart the knowledge of itself. (..last phrase is not original..hehe.)

I like The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy, cos the setting in Southern India reminds me so much about Bentong, where i grew up with all those Indian friends and bursting ripe mangoes and blue bottles (a specie of butterfly) and all those secret sex (nothing like secret sex to spice things up a bit...but has to be well told, though, not just for the sake of it. Human condition, remember.)

And Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X Pham. Asian in America going back to Asia to discover his roots. Like when i returned from the UK la. Whatever you can identify with. (usually ppl who r all cut up inside, with redemption in the end. No redemption too depressing la.)

Mind you, both books i mentioned are prize winners. U usually can't go wrong with big prize winners.

Ancient? Ancient books that last have something going for them, some eternal quality on the human condition, like the Bible, Shakespeare, ? ...which reminds me, i must try to get my hands on those 4 ancient Chinese Classics. Can i borrow from u, Benben?