Books are part of who we are

Books are part of who we are

Before he invades my life, becomes my companion, alters my life by teaching me about snails or about a soldier stilled by fear on an Afghan night, the writer is a stranger. Before I strap myself to his words and fly, before I submit myself to his paintings of the unimagined, I have to find him.

Over 300,000 books are said to be published in the United States alone each year, yet I will choose one.

Why that one? Where does a book begin? A colleague who will swear she is a rational woman says that she is drawn, as if by a literary phantom, to a library, to a particular shelf, to a specific book. Many of us are more prosaic.

We scan and skim in second-hand shops where discovery lies below a membrane of dust or wander a parent's bookshelf on silent afternoons.

We buy because a critic clucks approvingly, a book cover stares at us accusingly from a prominent place in a store, a rent-a-quote on the front cover gushes or a Bestseller List convinces.

Or because a friend educates us. Sixty years ago, a college pal told my mother, "You've never read the Russians?" and, appalled, brought in her cycle basket the treasures of Dostoyevsky, Chekhov and Tolstoy, which is how discovery begins.

When the book is chosen and the young woman in Kinokuniya finds it and puts it in my hands, pristine, untouched, the ink so fresh one might almost smell it, it offers something unique in life: adventure without moving.

Time and technology have redirected our tastes, but the book as something to marvel at and meditate over, the book as our accomplice, provoker, playmate, remains.

A football match finishes in 90 minutes, the movie ends, but the book, transportable anywhere, lingers longer.

Days, weeks, even a month.

In an essay, Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries, writes: "At its best, literature is pure encounter: it resists consumption because it cannot be used up and it cannot expire." When we read, our heads often bend, as if we are bowing to words.

The first page of Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See - the book I read last - is a single chapter of nine lines.

It is an appetiser, words spooned in, their flavour considered. Sometimes a first line will become famous, like in Stephen Crane's The Red Badge Of Courage: "The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting."

Sometimes, as with an inflexible shoe, it takes time, 20 pages till you can slip into a book comfortably.

It is what we owe writers, at least those 20 pages, at least that little fidelity, at least in recognition of their labour - in Ernest Hemingway's case this meant 39 rewrites of the last page of A Farewell To Arms. But sometimes author and reader simply cannot meet, no words can unite us.

I want rich detail woven with history in the non-fiction I read.

I want dialogue yet description from fiction, a character finely sketched, the stone of an old house so well drawn that I can put my hand out and feel its cold roughness.

A book is hopefully my magic carpet and my education, taking me, as John Steinbeck did with East Of Eden, to places I have not visited but which I could almost see:

"I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother."

Reading sounds romantic, but it is not. The book, for the reader, is a basic need: food, water, oxygen, words. To reach for the book is routine, an unremarkable and somewhat unexamined act, for when I read I never ask why I read or what I want from reading.

And yet the book fills not just spaces in my day but places in my brain. I think, for instance, I know sorrow but it is only when the great writer wanders through it that it translates clearly for me.

The book moves from object to appendage, travelling with me from plane to MRT platform, and there is an intimacy here, a sense of possession.

This book is not to be picked up at home by anyone, its position changed, its page lost.

People instinctively ask, "what is it like?" and "what is it about?" as if validation by a fellow reader is an invitation to read. And yet a book offers an experience so profoundly personal that it cannot be described and to a friend you will struggle to pare down its force, intellect, wonder, philosophy.

I read prone on a couch, feet on a table, under a lamp.

Whiskey provides a fine interlude.

Are there favourite places to play a video game because certainly there are to read a book. A bed, an afternoon, the strum of rain. An hour of no phone, no bark, no horn, just hostage to the quiet where, if you push deeper into contemplation, words can feel like music.

Do you ever stop, mid-page, stunned, as if you can feel the pain of the bugler in Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road To The Deep North, a prisoner of war whose tongue is "like some terrible plank of wood that would not properly do its work"? Do you ever put down a book because a paragraph stills you and you need to run the words through your head again just as you might take a second look at a painting? Like Doerr writing on the sea: "Right now the shadows of clouds are dragging across it, and patches of sunlight are touching down everywhere. White strings of gulls drag over it like beads."

A book - not all - affects your life. In ways you cannot list or know, but you are not the person in the end who you were at the start. An idea, a truth, has tinkered with your thinking, it has reshaped how you feel.

So little else in life is so altering. William Styron, who wrote Sophie's Choice, once told the Paris Review: "A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading it. Its writer should, too."

Days fold into weeks and you are imprisoned in the book. Work, bath, dinner, words.

Except then it thins, you look, 71 pages left, then 29, and this end of a voyage with a great book feels unbearable, you want to stretch it like a last, long kiss at a railway station before a lover leaves.

Then it's over, book and journey, and sometimes we should not read for a day, maybe two, let the words percolate, the ideas impregnate fully, yet it rarely happens.

Instead we push a stack of books aside on a shelf, find space, slide the book in, just another piece of who we are. Then we choose another book, switch on a lamp and adjust our glasses. "I guess," wrote Steinbeck, "there are never enough books." No. Never enough time.

rohitb@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 07, 2015.
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