On Reading And Literature

I was asked, “Why do you love reading?”

I don’t know. I can’t explain it.

I just do.

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If I am not allowed to read, I think I can get major depressive disorder. Because not being able to read is equaled to suffering a loss. And we all know that depression is associated with experiencing loss.

A friend of mine has a sister who is on treatment for depression. Her sister did not have the time to read after having a child. Not being able to read became one of her stressors, among many others.

I believe it. I believe it could happen to me. So, please…don’t deprive me of my reading time.

***

I started reading at the age of five. At that time, it was considered quite early. It was because my sister was 4 years older than me. Quite far apart in age. Whatever she did, I wanted to do them as well. That explained why I could read earlier than most kids my age. They didn’t have the benefit of having a much older sister. And my father always encouraged me to read when I was a child….well, until I became too absorbed with reading. Then, he became discouraging.

I knew the stories of Adam (a.s), Nuh (a.s), Musa (a.s) even before the ustazah in school had started teaching them. I read them from my sister’s books. Whenever I received my Rampaian Pendidikan Islam books during my Tahap 1, I would go straight to the last part of the book – where the sirah syllabus was usually placed.

When I was 9 years old, I had run out of kids books to read at home. So, I read Hikayat Inderaputera which was my father’s Form 6 literature text book. It was 400 pages or so. It was a ‘sastera saduran hindu’, I found out when I was more mature.  It was my favourite childhood book despite the fact that Inderaputera (a prince from Negeri Samanta Puri) had 4 wives and they were all princesses. Hahaha. (Later, when I was already grown up and studying in IB, I chose Hikayat Inderaputera for literature analysis as part of my IB’s extended essay and I got an A for it together with my TOK essay!)

I devoured all the Nancy Drew books, Hardy Boys books, Enid Blyton books, Fear Street series by R.L Stine, Spooksville series by Christopher Pike, Sweet Valley Series by Francine Pascals. I was crazy about them. It was like I was high on drug and needed my constant fix. I couldn’t get enough.

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There were  times when I had lied to my parents that I had Kelas Tambahan. What happened was, I stayed back in school just so I could read in the library. I would have no time to read at home. My schedule was tight. I had Kelas Al-Quran from 2.30 to 5.00. After 5.00, I had to do my daily English article translation (my father’s extra homework for me). And at night, I had to do my school work and academic studying. I went to sleep at 11.00 p.m every day since I was in primary school.

My parents were worried of my excessive obsession with reading story books. They preferred that I put more focus on my academic books. So, my parents would only buy me story books as a reward for good grades. Otherwise, I would have to save my own school money to buy myself books.

I used to complain very bitterly to my mother, “Mak orang lain semua suka beli buku kat anak depa. Tapi anak-anak depa tak minat nak baca pun. Mak patut bersyukur ada anak-anak yang suka membaca.”

“Pi baca buku Matematik. Tu mak bersyukur.”

I hate Maths!

***

Until I went to MRSM Langkawi, I really did think that I was really well-read. I was famous as an avid reader among my school friends. I wore that fame like a badge of honour.  Afiza the great reader! I liked the reputation.

But then I got to know Miss A.

Miss A was my classmate cum roommate in Langkawi. She is from Penang. Nibong Tebal, to be precise. She taught me that the books that I read with so much pride were junks! Trashy books! Nothing to feel accomplished about! Really!

Well, she didn’t say it exactly like that. But she asked me whether I have read Jane Eyre?  Do I know Charlotte Bronte? She asked if I was familiar with Arthur Conan Doyle, with Oscar Wilde, with Robert Louis Stevenson? How about Jane Austen? Do I love Pride and Prejudice? Have I heard of Gone With The Wind? Have I come across Wuthering Heights?  She asked me whether I could compose English poems? Have I read Lord Tennyson’s?  Did I love Shakespeare’s this and that?

Oh My God!

I was clueless. And I felt ashamed that I knew so little. Me…who thought that I was so well-read! Me….who thought that I was so culturally-literate! When in fact, I was nothing! I knew nothing!

Miss A could compose poems like a dream. In BOTH English and Malay, to boot!

She could come up with Malay Pantuns spontaneously without breaking a sweat. She was one of her school representative for Pantun Competition in her old school. Her command in BOTH the Malay and the English languages was really envy-worthy.

And I was, of course, slightly envious.

 I started to feel competitive (in a friendly way) of her command in language. I started to feel like I have to be as good as her.  Read as much as her. I should read something more serious…more literary. I started to feel like I should abandon commercial books and go for  the serious literature types. Those that were written by authors who have been dead and decomposed in their graves a long time ago….like Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Jules Verne, Doyle, Steinebeck, Somerset Maugham, Thomas Hardy, C.S Lewis. I felt like I should start reading something more sophisticated….

…so that I could tell her in a blase, nonchalant manner “What do you think of Robert Frost’s The Silken Tent? Why do you think Frost compared a woman to a tent? Is it a simile or a metaphor?” 

Hahhaha. Yeah….shallow teenage me! Reading… just so you can show off to your friend that you were just as much of a sophisticated reader as she was! Lol! I was soooo superficial!

It was all in good fun, though.

I have lost contact with her. But until now, no one could replace her as my most enthusiastic friend when it comes to book discussion. No one could compare to her. She is in a class of her own. Never again have I come across another person who is as well-read as she is.

Reading thrillers, romance or paranormal sci-fi is not a big deal! I have many friends who read those.

Try reading  literatures like Miss A.

NOT  just modern literatures. But classic ones!

For introducing me to classic literatures, Miss A gets all the credit. I wouldn’t have bothered to read literatures, (modern, classic or otherwise) if it wasn’t for Miss A, my ex-roomie. Without her interrogating me on my readings,  I would never have discovered the treasure of classic literatures. I admit that I started reading classic literatures because I wanted to show off. But I ended up enjoying them and reading them for their own sake.

But before I could get to the point of enjoying them…I had to suffer, first.

And I suffered a great deal.

God only knows how many times I had to open the dictionary! I wanted to weep in frustration. I had to create a vocab book which I still have with me until today. I copied beautiful phrases and sentences into that vocab book. (because I wanted to be able to quote them to Miss A. Hahhah). To be honest, during the course of my reading endeavour, I felt like giving up multiple times.

But I persevered anyway because I wanted to compete with Miss A.

I couldn’t remember at what point did I begin to really earnestly enjoy literatures. The only thing that I remember is, by the time I finished reading The Professor by Charlotte Bronte, I was in love…hook, line and sinker.

Lesson learned: When something is good for you, it doesn’t matter what your real intention was when you began. You will realize the benefits later. And then your intention will correct itself. 

You may compare my journey in liking classics literatures as similar to those of new converts who become Muslims for the sake of marriage rather than real faith. The intention does correct itself, eventually.(Well, hopefully)

***

Why literature is better than commercial books?

Well….

They have better figure of speech, for one thing.

Superior diction, for another.

Distinctive sentence structure! You learn that depending on the context, one can make short, clipped sentences sound just as beautiful as long, elaborate syntax. And you will be awed by both.

They have more messages. More lessons. Hidden treasures.

They pack a punch. And it hit you somewhere in your chest. Really, in your heart. And certainly, in your mind. You will be irrevocably changed. Your worldview shift. And something in you will never be quite the same.

Literatures taught you to have principles. To struggle and persevere. To be heroic during hard times. And to be charitable and benevolent in good times. Literatures taught you to prize substance over form, to place more value on character over persona.

It makes you think. Deeply.

It’s hard to describe. But I never regret going through the hardship of familiarizing myself with reading classic literatures. It was hard! But like everything else in life, it gets easier. And then it becomes enjoyable.

***

But I still read junks! Hahhaa. Lots of them!

Reading sci-fi, thrillers, mysteries….they are like eating ice-creams and desserts. Easy and comfortable. A form of escapism. A reward, really!

But literatures….they are like the green veggies. So good for you… but ugh…so difficult to swallow. So much effort needed. So much time must be invested.

So, I had to push myself.

For every 5 commercial books that I read, I told myself that I must read 1 literature.

My golden 1:5 ratio.

Well, occasionally I slack off. Occasionally my performance drops to the 1:10 ratio.

I call that my silver ratio.

My bronze ratio is 1:15. Hahhah.

But hey…. give me a credit for trying to FORCEFULLY educate my taste.

I used to think that those who look down on thrillers, mysteries and sci-fi are pretentious snobs! Just reading on how they criticize commercial books in the reading forums made me feel annoyed. I was convinced that they were only pretending to love literatures just because those are intellectual books and thus reading them make these people feel like they were extra wise than the rest of us. I just could not compute that anyone can dislike mysteries, thrillers, and  simple enjoyable fiction. How can you NOT like commercial books? It’s like not liking ice-creams and chocolates and cakes! Why don’t you just admit that you secretly enjoy commercial books too, at least occasionally? What? You think literatures are the only superior reading material?

But actually, I was wrong.

Literatures ARE superior reading material. No doubt about it. No use denying it.

Just because you enjoy eating ice-cream, doesn’t mean you should eat ice-cream all the time. Ice-cream can never be a form of superior daily staple. Sometimes, you have to force yourself to eat green veggies. And after a few times of forcing yourself to eat veggies, you will start feeling guilty when you don’t.

Lesson learned: It is good to read what you enjoy. But then it is also important to learn to enjoy the right thing.  

And this lesson can be extended into many other aspects of your life. Just because you enjoy doing something, doesn’t mean it is good for you. So force yourself to enjoy the right thing by doing it often enough. To the point that you will feel guilty when you don’t do it.

See?

See how much literature has taught me?

I have become quite philosophical about life.

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