If fairy godmothers still flew around bestowing blessings on newborns, it would be the lucky babe who gets the gift of reading. For, wrapped between the pages of books, lie beauty, song and many wondrous things one could wish for a child as well as her parents.
Books take you around the world and beyond, from the centre of the earth to foreign lands, outer space and other universes, making you wonder about futuristic cities and extra-terrestrial life and ponder on man’s mortality in the scheme of infinity. The Time Machine by H G Wells, Brave New World (Aldous Huxley), The Martian Chronicles (Ray Bradbury), The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood) and The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins) come to mind.
Reading gives insights into how people think and feel and what moves them. It also takes you back to yourself as you recognise the things that matter and why, and influences that shape and lead you through different phases of life. Which headstrong teenager does not see herself as brave, tomboyish
Jo March in Little Women (Louisa May Alcott), who longs to write and breaks the mould of 19th-century young women grooming themselves to be demure homebodies.
Early this month, Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik launched the #MalaysiaMembaca campaign, asking Malaysians to share their 10 favourite books so as to encourage everyone to read more by 2030. The year is immaterial: Why should there be a full stop to a meaningful activity that gives endless hours of joy? Besides, starting a love affair with books is like falling down the rabbit hole; like Alice, you don’t know what adventure awaits.
Voracious readers will have difficulty whittling down the number of much-loved books that have kept them company through thick and thin. But favourite lists are a welcome guide for those who tend to get lost in a bookshop, torn between titles that wink at them, or are unsure if a bestseller is as good as its blurb claims.
Shamini Flint, whose seven Inspector Singh crime fiction novels have been optioned for television, says her favourite books may not be the best ever written, although some of them really are, but “they’re those that I read at key moments in my life and therefore had a disproportionate influence on my life”.
Strong female characters, history and the nature of the future as predicted by writers moved her the most. “I also remember the moments when I realised that a narrator need not be reliable, that the law reaches into every facet of our lives and that the moral arc of the universe does bend towards justice,” says Flint, who has authored numerous children’s books.
Among the Believers by Nobel Laureate V S Naipaul, who died on Aug 11, set Dina Zaman on the path of writing about religion in the public space. Starting IMAN Research — a think tank that focuses on society, religion and perception — was and still is a steep learning curve for the author of I Am Muslim and Holy Men, Holy Women: A Journey Into the Faiths of Malaysians and Other Essays. She turned to business/motivational books and those on prayer because “you need more than nerves of steel. You need to be mentally and spiritually strong!
“I read to learn about a culture or society, and to escape into a story. I come out enriched and wanting to go off on an adventure,” Dina says. “Reading, to me, is not escapism. It makes you think; it makes you angry; it is that best friend who provokes you to be more.”
Books are a window on the world for Shih Li Kow, whose short story anthology, Ripples and Other Stories, was shortlisted for the 2009 Frank O’Connor
International Short Story Award.
“Much of what cannot be learnt or lived by doing can be learnt by reading and listening. In reading, we listen to the voice of one or many. We even see, or feel, on our own terms, without having to deal with the person in the room. This unique privacy, this time to create an understanding and the freedom to imagine is a luxury in this age of noise, chatter and preconceptions,” Kow says.
Documentary filmmaker, writer and publisher (Matahari Books and Buku Fixi) Amir Muhammad says books make him imagine communities. Tan Twan Eng, whose The Garden of Evening Mists won the 2012 Man Asian Literary Prize and is being made into a movie, reads so he can “be a better writer, and because I love to dance to the music of words”.
Those who aspire to work with words understand the importance of reading. Master of pop horror Stephen King puts it succinctly in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft: “If you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.”
As interest in the printed word grows, the weak ringgit and rising book prices can be a bummer. But browse around and you can find good reads going for a song in second-hand stores or at a sale. There are also ways to read without having to make a purchase. A mother-of-two who frequents the Petaling Jaya Community Library in Selangor cannot say enough about its wide variety of children’s books in English, Chinese and Malay, and cookbooks for herself. Another member is constantly amazed to find works by renowned authors, new writers and bound volumes on arts and crafts.
Mobile libraries have popped up at three Rapid KL stations — Kuala Lumpur Sentral, Pasar Seni and Ampang — courtesy of Books on the Move Malaysia. The programme, founded by Carol Koh and unveiled on Aug 9, aims to “bring a little joy to people who commute to work daily”. It is inspired by Books on the Move Global, a sharing initiative that began in London in 2012 and now has more than 20 branches in 14 countries.
To keep the exchange space alive, commuters are encouraged to return a book after they have read it or donate some of their own. Bulk donations can be dropped off at ME.REKA Makerspace in Publika Shopping Gallery, Kuala Lumpur.
Books keep boredom at bay and those who bury their nose in one never complain that time hangs heavy on their hands. Real godmothers should not have to wonder what to gift a child.
5 Malaysian writers list their top 10 books:
TAN TWAN ENG
- The Annotated Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
- Waterland by Graham Swift
- Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Regeneration Trilogy by Pat Barker
- Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
- Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom by Stephen Platt
- Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
- The Crippled Tree by Han Suyin
- Collected Short Stories by W Somerset Maugham
- To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare
- Wild Swans by Jung Chang
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
- Evening is the Whole Day by Preeta Samarasan
- The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
- The Foundation Trilogy by Isaac Asimov
- Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
- Elements of Land Law by Kevin Gray and Susan Gray
- Once by Morris Gleitzman
- Linchpin by Seth Godin
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
- Shortcut Your Startup by Courtney Reum and Carter Reum
- The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale
- Merawat Kehidupan Dengar Zikir Asma’ Alhusna by Akmal el- Muhammady
- The Lover by Marguerite Duras
- The House of Sleeping Beauties by Yasunari Kawabata
- My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
- Weapons of the Weak by James C Scott
- Malay Magic by Walter William Skeat
SHIH LI KOW
- The Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess
- Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
- Life of Pi by Yann Martel
- A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
- Beloved by Toni Morrison
- Blindness by José Saramago
- One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Márquez
- The Invisible Man by H G Wells
- Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach
- The Malayan Trilogy by Anthony Burgess
- Town Boy by Lat
- The Soul of Malaya by Henri Fauconnier
- Amerika by Ridhwan Saidi
- Sajak Sajak Salleh: Poems Sacred and Profane by Salleh Ben Joned
- Ingin Jadi Pujangga by A Samad Ismail
- As I Was Passing by Adibah Amin
- Devil’s Place by Brian Gomez
- Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History by Chin Peng as told to Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor
- Islam Embedded by Farish A Noor
This article first appeared in Aug 20, 2018 in The Edge Malaysia.