To all the books I loved before


I LOVE to read. No, that’s a bit of a lie. I used to love to read. My overloaded, sagging bookshelves were a testimony to a habit that was a large part of my life for many years.

I say “were” because I finally got around to clearing those shelves with all the free time I have under the movement control order.

As I pulled books off the shelves to put into “keep” and “junk” piles,

I recalled my reading journey, beginning at age nine when I read my first novel: Enid Blyton’s The Mystery of the Disappearing Cat.

Dad was the one who inculcated the reading habit among his children but he was also the one who got rid of our books out of exasperation once because we were so addicted to Enid Blyton – my generation’s most popular children’s author – that we neglected our studies.

I still remember how we wept when Dad took away our books.

But we slowly rebuilt our library and apart from a diet of Blyton books that made me into an Anglophile, I also read lots of nonfiction. As I wrote in my Feb 8,2017, column How I became a clever girl (online at bit.ly/star_clever), Dad filled our home with books, magazines, encyclopaedias and volumes of Time-Life’s Great Ages of Man and its Science and Nature Libraries.

The two magazines that were a constant in our house were Reader’s Digest and National Geographic.

My own library started after I got married 36 years ago with a secondhand bookcase. That has grown to eight bookcases with double rows of books on every shelf.

As I went through the books, I realised how much my interests and tastes have changed over the years. Titles that used to mean so much to me no longer do.

I was mad about science fiction in my 20s, my favourite authors being Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Both men predicted the future in terms of space travel, satellites and robotics.

These books are so well-read that pages are loose, darkened with age and musty-smelling. They look so grotty, I doubt I want to read them again. But in the end, I decided to keep them, simply because they meant so much to my youthful self.

I also kept Frank Herbert’s Dune series but that’s because the first book is being made into a new movie slated for release in October. I plan to re-read the book before that.

There was, however, no saving my beloved first set of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) books which I bought as an undergraduate from Universiti Malaya’s campus bookshop 40 years ago. I read them every year for a decade. The three books were in tatters so they went into the junk pile. I consoled myself that I still have two new versions of the book.

Also heaped on the junk pile are literature textbooks from my university days like The Metaphysical Poets, Middlemarch and The Book of Sonnets which I know I will never read again and none of my kids will either. They are dark brown and stained from age, and not very pleasant to even hold.

Ditto books I bought or were given but never read despite many attempts like Fifty Shades of Grey. These I kept all these years as I felt bad about throwing out well-meaning gifts.

But there were oldies I was delighted to see again and keep: VS Naipaul’s A House for Mr Biswas, Alan Paton’s Cry the Beloved Country and Tales from the South China Seas edited by Charles Allen.

That I had so many books reminded me of how passionate a reader I was. I had to read everywhere, at meals, on the potty, even while bathing, with a book propped up on the bathroom shelf. I never travelled without bringing a book or two along.

I took great pride and joy in being a consumer of books way above the national average. Back in 1996, it was widely reported Malaysians only read two books a year. I was reading probably two or three books a week.

Our reading rate has apparently improved. Malaysians, on average, read about 15 books a year based on a 2014 National Library study.

It has got even better, according to Polish e-commerce platform Picodi, whose survey last year showed that Malaysia is ranked – amazingly – sixth globally when it comes to buying books, ahead of countries like Britain, Finland, Thailand and Singapore, if you can believe it.

But my passion for reading waned when I fell in love with Korean (and later on Asian) dramas about eight years ago. I spent most of my leisure hours chasing series after series. And my books fell by the wayside. I was still buying books that caught my eye but I often left them untouched.

Reading has become difficult for me and I believe it’s because my brain has been rewired in how it receives and perceives visual input. In a way, it has become lazy.

My theory is this: when I am reading a novel, my brain has to make sense of the words and work at imagining the scenes or characters as described by the author. On the other hand, when I watch a foreign language movie or drama, even though I am constantly reading the subtitles, my brain no longer has to build the images for me because I see it all unfolding on the TV or computer screen.

So now when I read, my brain synapses are probably firing at a much slower rate. But one of my 2021 resolutions is to get back to reading more. That’s why I am re-visiting Middle-earth even though it took me more than a month to reach Rivendell. (Tolkien fans will know what I mean.)

Nonfiction books are even more demanding. It took me almost seven months to finish Jared Diamond’s Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. I kept going simply because it was a really insightful book, just like his earlier book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, which I read a lot faster.

Hard as it was, I managed to junk about half of my books. My newly lightened book shelves, cleaned of dust and mould, display an eclectic range of books which I hope to read or re-read.

They include my newer copies of LOTR and novels by John Grisham, Lee Child, Charlene Harris, Philip Pullman, George RR Martin, Neil Gaiman, Garth Nix, Ken Follett, Juliet Marillier, JK Rowling and Diana Wynne Jones.

On the nonfiction side, I have kept, among others, autobiographies, biographies and books on religion, history, art and food.

I had planned to donate my discarded books to charity but the current MCO has put a hold on that. They are now stacked along my staircase. Which is a bad place because every time I pass them by, I feel a pang and wonder if I’ve done the right thing.

My book-clearing days are not over. I still have Dad’s enormous collection of National Geographic magazines dating back to 1971 to send off. I hope I can find a good home for them.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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