books just happened
Anyone who loves reading knows that the fastest train in the world is your mind, the speediest way to travel is by reading.
Whatever my childhood may be pale in comparison with the more affluent families, my parents made it up by letting their children read whenever they want, wherever they want. Even during Chinese new year where some older folks frown at the sight of books because `shu' - 书 also sounds like 输, losing...not something old fashioned Chinese want to be associated with during Chinese new year.
Hence even though my parents' house was shabby and my siblings and I never grew up with a VCR player...or fancy electronic games and overseas holidays (I don't remember any holidays other than our CNY visits to Ipoh), we always had books in the house. Though it was never a big thing, as far as I can remember, books just happened in my childhood.
Yes, I only read books in Mandarin back in school. My primary and secondary school days were spent in national Chinese schools, till form 4 when I transferred to a Malay school near ISA Kamunting. The world of written English only came to me in high school where it started rather slowly and not without a bit of teething pain.
Other memories involving books and reading include those late outing with my father to town in Taiping. My father would take me with him to run his errands and work in town, he was the accounts person in a small cinema then and would go to the cinema office in the evening. Within walking distance from this dodgy little cinema (they screened dodgy films too, I remember watching some of them!) there was a Chinese bookshop called Nan-Hwa Shu Ju (南华书局) run by this tall and skinny lady whose name I have forgotten but not her face, she was a friendly figure, short curly permed hair with big mouth of big teeth jutting out of her constantly talking or smiling face. Am sure if I asked my father now he would still remember her and her name.
Then my sister left school and got a job in the city! Shortly after her stint in a music school and a few interviews with Malaysian airline she started her training as a stewardess. She would write me letters from the city in Malay (she doesn't write Chinese) at first, because my English was very limited. Slowly she would mix the letters with simple English and ask me to check my dictionary if I couldn't understand the letters. She encouraged me to pick up my English writing and speaking, "so that when you are bigger next time I could take you flying with me to visit other countries, but first you will need to speak good English."
To me that would always remain as the...for lack of better word, the starter or initiator for my chapter in discovering the world of books in English. The desire to want to see the world and be more sophisticated - I had to be good in English, back then in the late 80s and early 90s. I didn't need much pushing, soon after that I was tuning into Radio 4 and listening to the late night broadcast of `song dedication' hosted by Janet Ambrose. In the morning I listened to the crazy duo Yasmin Yusof and Patrick Teoh breakfast show. I tried very hard to understand the punch lines and conversations in sitcoms like Growing Pains, Family Man, The Simpsons, Saved By The Bell...Doogie Howser, etc.
For reading I had to start with Enid Blyton...constantly being confused with very old fashioned words such as `crossed'. I was already in high school then and the library in the high school was way bigger and it even had an air-conditioned section. I would have a after school lunch (peanut butter sandwich my mom made for me) and stayed in school till 3 or 4pm before my father come around to pick me up. Those wonderful lazy afternoons were spent dreaming and reading in the library, looking at books that I couldn't borrow and choosing between ten books that I want to borrow.
I was reading elementary books in English while I devoured advanced Chinese literatures like 巴 金's 家,春, 秋 and others (like my favourite 三 毛) to satisfy my otherwise rather mundane life. Soon I moved to what I remember as the simplified versions of classics like Picture of Dorian Gray among other titles (I wish I kept a record of what I read then). When school holidays came when I was in form 2 or 3, I graduated to reading old copies of Reader's Digest, given to my family by friends. The days spent at home during school holidays were long and hot (no air-conditioning in my parents' house, not even now) but I was very much pacified by lying on the cool cement floor in my room, glued to the pages of various Reader's Digest. I was lucky like that that my mom let me get lost for hours everyday in my room, I never have to help her with cooking and much chores, also explained my very very limited cooking repertoire now.
Oh, and the entire building was air-conditioned so there's never any need to go anywhere to stay cool, except when it closes and everyone gotta get out.
I was introduced to Sue Townsend's books in this library. 'Rebuilding Coventry'...I was immediately attracted by the novel's opening line, (somewhere along the line of, since I don't have a copy with me now)
"The two things that you need to know about me immediately are that I am very attractive and I have murdered my neighbor yesterday."
The town library was the last place with books that I hang out at most in Taiping, before I left for the city. And then reading became a different creature once I started making my own allowance for books, with my own money.
Reading morphed into owning and collecting books besides just reading them. I started to buy and collect at a rate way way faster than I could read them. With the distraction of a gazillion things and chores in an adult's life, reading without a care in the world is a conscious effort and a luxury. There were months where I wasn't really any book in particular, it's too easy now, I have books by the shelves full in my flat and more within my reach - they have been taken for granted.
The influences I got for my grown-up reading were from my city friends. Meanwhile, my sister became a part time contributor for various magazines and dailies, and then she started to publish her own books.
SeeMing and Justin were possibly my biggest influence in what I read when I was fresh out of college in late 90s. Both fast readers, like how SeeMing could finish one book in one sitting. They were trading books between themselves and would pass me some to read. I was at the hand-out corner, hungrily awaiting ideas and ideals. Through Justin I learned to love reading science books written for layman. It took me a long time to finish Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World" but the ride was worth it, I would never see the world the same again! And what a liberating feeling it was to understand and to know why people always have ghostly encounters at night!
I would made many many more friends later in great many different circles but finding your mates in reading in a city like KL is a little harder than find the perfect tenant or landlord. These days I trade reading list with my colleagues in music, we talk about writing we benefit from and we exchange. My jazzer friend Cher Siang has been instrumental in bringing me back to my Chinese roots in reading. And thanks to Lynn, the next book to get curled up in maniac depression is going to be "Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?"
The list of great books that change my life goes on and on, and so many more to change me further lies all around me. I have been living a charmed life and am gifted with many things. The ability to find immense joy in reading is certainly somewhere very close to the best gifts I have in this life.
And of course, years after those letters from my sister and her promise to take me traveling. I finally confronted my sister when I speak a lot more English since I started in standard 6, "So when are you taking me flying to those English speaking countries?"
She smiled, "Silly, now that you speak English fine, you can go out and visit the world yourself!"