My joy in reading is strewn with oddities. The first full-length book I read was probably from the library of my primary school. Probably a children’s book by Enid Blyton, featuring the Famous Five.
From my primary school reading, I remember only characters: Jennings and Darbishire, Biggles, Perry Mason.
From my secondary school years, I remember only titles: Far Country and Peyton Place. The first, by Neville Shute, introduced me to the worlds of Australia and of aircraft. The second introduced me to romance.
Those two books belonged to my family. Although I know I read much while in secondary school, I don’t remember what I read. Perhaps this was when I became an ardent fan of Agatha Christie.
My father subscribed to three English magazines: LIFE, TIME and Reader’s Digest. I devoured them. But I don’t recall discussing anything I read in them! I loved the condensed books at the back of every issue of Readers Digest. These introduced me to the joy in reading.
He also subscribed to the Tamil magazines Kalki and Kumutham. I only read them to impress my mother. I’ve often wondered if I’d be more fluent in Malay if my father had subscribed to a Malay periodical.
When I went to English College (Maktab Sultan Abu Bakar) in Johor Bahru, I discovered the public library. While waiting for my A-level results I went by bus from Pontian to that library weekly to borrow books.
I was drawn to the biography shelves and the history of science shelves. I remember reading thick tomes about John Hancock, Albert Schweitzer, the Curies, Alexander Fleming, Isaac Newton. My joy in reading is stamped in the odd things I remember.
John Hancock made his signature LARGE on the Declaration of Independence to be sure King George would see it.
Albert Schweitzer was rushed by officers into packing his suitcase when they took him to be incarcerated (as a German threat) during the war. This made him choose to be patient with others for the rest of his life.
Isaac Newton wrote more about God than he did about physics.
I also read novels. I’ll mention two of them. Roots by Alex Haley, through the character Kunta Kinte, introduced me to the social evil of slavery. Wheels by Arthur Hailey introduced me to the belief that you should never buy a car built in Detroit on a Monday or a Friday.
During my university years I read well beyond my engineering curriculum. Perhaps it was then that I began reading V S Naipaul, who helped me think through what it means to be a diaspora Indian. My joy in reading is expressed in my self-understanding.
Over the years I became fond of many writers. My wife is as fond of reading as I am. We cherish the historical novels of James Michener, the law dramas of John Grisham, the Jewish novels of Chaim Potok, the African detective stories of Alexander McCall Smith.
We also enjoy books by Christians. We’ve collected books by John White, Max Lucado, Paul Yancey – to name just three whom we love.
For brevity, I’ll omit my joy in “technical” books (I have hundreds, covering behaviour, business, chemistry, economics, engineering, history, humour, investigation, journalism, law, leadership, management, politics, quality, religion, sociology, statistics, travel, writing.)
I have a travel habit which concerns books. I try never to leave a city without one or more books to remember it by. I buy them in bookstores, monuments, museums, or airports. I’ll give five examples.
I have a book about food during WWII, bought at a war museum in the UK. A book about modern Israel bought at a Holocaust museum in New York. A book about Napoleon bought at the war museum in Paris. A book about Borobudur, bought there. A book about a Catholic pharmacist who served Jews in Krakow, bought in Krakow. My joy in reading is displayed on my bookshelves.
Why am I writing about books today? Because this morning, in a biography of Dorothy L Sayers, by Colin Duriez, I learned some quaint things about Oxford.
I’ll give two examples which concern the bell on Tom Tower, at the entrance to Christ Church College.
The bell chimes at 9:05 pm, NOT 9:00 pm. Why? Because Oxford time is 5 minutes after Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), and 9:00 pm GMT is the time by which students (long ago) had to be back in the college!
Until 1663, the bell chimed 100 times at 9:05 pm, to represent the number of students in the college. In 1663, the count was increased to 101 because one student was added!
That is the joy in reading. You enter new worlds. You are healed. You travel at your own pace. And you don’t worry that Air Asia won’t refund your fares if they cancel your flights.
What’s your book story? Start a conversation with someone!