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Starting the reading habit

Among so many things that make me “different” than the average Malaysian, one I’d like to highlight today is my voracious appetite for books.

There’s some report out there that looks at the reading rate of nations, where reading does NOT include newspapers (and maybe magazines? I don’t remember). The intention was to see how many read for the pleasure of reading, as opposed to reading to get updated on the news, Malaysia didn’t do too well in that study.

Malaysia’s literacy rate is not too bad (upper 80%/ lower 90%?) for a 3rd world country… but wait, aren’t we insisting that we are NOT 3rd World? Oooookay then… let’s start behaving like 1st Worlders then… so so so many things need to happen to get us there… one no-regrets move is expanding your mind through books.

How did I get started on books? Role-modelling by parents was first: in my early years, I believe both my parents read books regularly (tho now it’s only mom who seems to be picking up books… dad just reads the papers, and golf magazines….). We had lots of children’s books around too, tho those were more to be read to us kids, I think. Anyways – at this time I was curious about what there was in books that would keep people’s noses buried in them for hours at a time, but I had not been bitten by the bookworm yet.

Then, when I was in early Std One, if I recall properly, my parents decided that it was time that I (we?) started reading properly. They had obtained some Enid Blyton books from a garage sale, and tasked my brother and me to start reading. I remember that I started on “Merry Mr Meddle”… and I kinda slogged through part of it, and was just not interested, Asked parents if I could switch to another book, but no, I was ordered to keep going. Ugh. Well, I made it though, and perhaps the later stories weren’t so bad… or maybe I got used to the style of the author by then… either way, that marked the start of my reading “career” J

I have a clear recollection of a scene in school – it was Pn Asma, my Std One teacher, coming up to me to see what book I was reading between class – it was one of the Famous Five books. I remember her being very impressed that I was already reading those kinds of stories. Writing this, even I am impressed… because that means I was already devouring the Famous Five, Secret Seven and the Five Investigators and Dog within a few months of that first “hump”. Not bad, eh?

Oh yes, in case you didn’t know – we were almost exclusively an Enid Blyton family of readers for the longest time. That woman churned out book after book after book! Amazing!

Can you believe I even started reading ROOTS, the book that was then made into that mini series – the story about Kunta Kinte, captured and shipped to the U.S. as a slave, the story of him and his descendants. That was the first book I never completed (only about 5 total in my lifetime!): it was a bit too “heavy” for a 10-year-old to digest.

I never had the patience for those Mills & Boon and other romance type novels that most of my classmates seemed hooked on in my teenage years. Heck, some never got past that phase, it seems!

An important activity during my younger years was trips to a library… somewhere in KL… was it in the Chow Kit area? I was too young to know specifically where we were – just seems in my mind like something in Chow Kit! Aaaanyway… this was important because I remember my brother and I would be allowed to borrow up to three books each, and we made sure we’d use up that quota! Later, we’d do the same thing when at the library at the British Council. This was a good time to experiment with different, unknown authors. Risk-free, you’re not buying the books maaah!!

This enabled me to read, in 1983, George Orwell’s “1984.” And to discover Hugh Lofting’s Dr Doolittle series (there is SO MUCH more to this series than what was portrayed in the horrid movie starring Eddie Murphy, let me assure you!).

Me being me, however, I shied away from what seemed to be pushed as “classic must-reads”. So please do not talk to me about Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Pride & Prejudice, anything Shakespeare, Louisa M Alcott, etc. I just can’t bring myself to read them.

Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is an interesting one: It took me along time to gather the courage to buy the book (I got a 3-in-one, way before the movies came out). Why “courage”? Well, it’s only THE groundbreaking work that pretty much set the scene for all fantasy books out there today. Seeing as I have read maybe half of what’s on the shelves of the fantasy section of Kinokuniya, I definitely am a fan on fantasy. But what if I don’t like it? What if I can’t understand it? What if it doesn’t appeal to me? … anyway – it took me till after the first movie to pick up the book to start reading it. o m g !! it dragged on and on and on and on… I gave up soon after Bilbo “disappeared” at this birthday party. Tried again must later, and made it to when the hobbits spend the night in the mountain with the elves. And stopped. Tolkien puts in too much detail,,, I could probably skim through half the book and not lose the plot. But I can see why it was so groundbreaking. The world had not yet dealt with such a comprehensive alternate world as described by Tolkien, and he was painstakingly describing it to his readers. By this day and age, what he describes is relatively “normal” for a regular fantasy junkie, and would be deemed perhaps unnecessary.

Another important influence: Stephen King. Yes yes, I considered him “only” a horror writer.. but his work “The Stand” which I read in the early 1990’s, was more fantasy than horror, yet certainly had King’s stamp on it: a gritty story about good vs evil in our world wiped out by a mysterious plague. Perhaps that pointed me to his Dark Tower series, though I can only confidently remember buying and rereading DT1-3 when DT4 came out. SK has finally completed this series, about Roland who seeks the Dark Tower DT 5, 6 & 7 came out over the span of a year or so, and I plan to have (re)read all 7 books this year.

I’m not a big fan of “reality”, perhaps because I get more than enough of that in real life. So those “famous” authors like Crichton, Clancy, Grisham… sorry lah, I could probably have a conversation in general terms about their works, but never in detail. Of those listed, I may have read a few Grisham novels, borrowed from mom.

So, where am I going with this?

I think it’s important to get hooked on reading.
So many issues and themes, valid in today’s world, are explored in books.
Books get you to think about other perspectives, and introduce you to new and different things.

And if you don’t know where to start…
Drop by the British Council, become a member, and go wild! (I tried entering the National Library on Jln Tun Razak when I first opened: couldn’t enter unless you were a member - managed to get in saying I want to see what there is before I pay up - and it was so poorly marked that I didn’t know where to go to find the books I wanted so I just walked out and never went back again…)

Or of you say it’s too expensive a “hobby”…
Pick up an issue of the Reader’s Digest, and see which types of article appeal to you. They have a pretty good mix of styles and genres, and could get you pointed in the right direction. In fact, the Digests were such a huge influence on me, that I’ll write a bit more about them in a separate blog article.

I can’t stress enough how big an impact reading has had on my life. I can only hope you take my word for it, and seek to also find pleasure in reading,



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