Over the years, there has been repeated soul searching about the reading habits of Malaysians, and how to get them to read more.
Occasionally some public figure – businessman or politician – will be interviewed and he (usually it is a he) will tell of how reading made such a difference to his life. He will be photographed in his study, surrounded by books, and he will talk of those that made the difference.
Great, I think, except for one thing. Very, very rarely will he ever mention fiction. Even my husband – who reads all the time – will almost never read a book of fiction. Not even at the rate of one a year. He hasn’t even read all of mine.
I was at a government clinic this morning, waiting for my turn to see the doctor. I started a new book when I arrived, and by the time I walked out of there, two and a half hours later, I had almost finished it, and what a wonderful read it was: Mr Pip, by Lloyd Jones, shortlisted for the 2007 Man-booker prize. (A book of complex ideas and themes that is amazingly easy to read – highly, highly recommended.)
Now, when I think of my wait at the clinic, I don’t think of it as wasted time, but as a wonderful couple of hours spend in another world which I previously knew nothing about (Bougainville Island) during a time that I used to – very occasionally – read something about in the newspapers: the secessionist rebels’ war against Papua New Guinea, backed by Australian military might. Read the book, and – if you are Australian – feel shame.
I looked around the clinic occasionally when I could drag my mind away from the story, to see what everyone else was doing.
A few read newspapers. Most sat and did exactly nothing, staring blankly into space.
How I pity them. They will never be truly well educated, because they do not read. They will never understand the human condition of people outside the limiting walls of their lives. They will never understand what it is like to be a different person, living in a different world, experiencing another vastly different life.
Except maybe as portrayed by Hollywood and the glossies. They might know a bit about Britney Spears, but what do they know of a young girl growing up on Bougainville in the 1990s? After this morning, I can tell them.