A Personal Note on Reading

One can brag so much about how they love reading and you are permitted to ignore them—only until they successfully describe to you, in details, upon what they actually love about it. This post, however, is not an attempt to convince you about my perpetual fondness to books (I don’t think that’s even necessary), but rather a casual narrative on how this affection of mine develops.

(Not that you should care about it.)

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Before we march on, allow me to confess this: in my 18-year career of reading, I’ve always carefully tried not to make an impression that I belong to the group of readers who pretentiously call themselves ‘bibliophiles‘, ‘literary aficionado‘, or the alike. It’s not because I particularly hate them or anything—I guess it’s just that I think labeling yourself with communal pronouns degrades the sacredness and intimacy of reading. It’s like cutting off that ‘reading’ branch from your ‘personal pleasure’ tree and add it on top of another stack of other people’s branches. In a less hygienic analogy: sharing a common name to call yourself is like sharing your clean toilet with the public. It’s not a sin, but I’d prefer to keep mine private—if you know what I mean.

Lately, though, I fell onto one of those middle-class traps of enjoying the phony habit of regularly uploading a stream of pictures—only instead of unconsumed foods, I take unread covers as my object of photography.

Anyway. About what reading means to me (I might get sentimental along the way):

1. A Mind-Capsule Where Time Stops

Does anyone actually remember the time when they first learned letters, spelled them out, and read a ‘b-o-o-k’? (Or a ‘p-a-r-a-g-r-a-p-h’, on a less ambitious note?) I’m pretty sure that mine started on a Thursday when I was 3 years old, because Thursdays were the days when Abang Koran in my neighborhood always had a new issue of Majalah Bobo. The family rumor has it that I wanted to read the magazine so badly that I learned to read overnight or something like that.

Regardless this blurred fact, I have no doubts that from then on, I have created this mind-capsule into which I can silently enter—all by myself. Sometime in the course of developing its shape and volume, time had stopped forever inside. Even when I visit it today by reading the most philosophical novel like Anthem, the girl reading it is still that innocent teenager who thinks (in the present tense) that she belongs to Ravenclaw and that some heroes deserve better. The hours that you spend while holding an open book doesn’t count—it paused; not like a broken clock, but simply because there are things more profound than the number of ticking seconds that should be measured. Things like those new, exciting thoughts and ideas before your eyes.

Then I realized that there are only two kinds of time: one before you can read a book, and one after. And believe me, the world is so much brighter and more colorful in the latter.

P.S. I love this #joyofreading project by The Economist.

2. A Thought-Silencer That Actually Works

Nocturnal people know it better: it’s not some disease called insomnia, or deadlines that keep us anxious; it’s just that our minds can get so loud that in the extreme cases, we cannot sleep at night. Experienced over-thinkers often find it troublesome to relax because they are bombarded by this new questions or memories on a minute-basis. And such anxiety isn’t exclusive to times when you’re supposed to sleep, but also in the middle of the day when you’re supposed to
carpe diem and loosen up.

Different people have different methods to silence this inner-voice down. Some put on their headset, sketch pictures on a fresh paper, or take it out by talking to their partners. Having tried various alternatives, however, I found out that the little domain inside books is what works best for me. It’s one of the magic tricks that books perform on us: they know how to control the noise inside our heads. The most powerful paragraphs can shove the resistant loud completely off, and let us enjoy a little peace of mind for a while. No wonder many of us have to read something before bed.

I believe that reading should not make you feel lonely—alone yes, but not the sad kind of alone. More like the happy one—ask the introverts around if you don’t get the phrase ‘elating solitude’.

3. A Travel-Company Who Doesn’t Mind

Saying that I hate traveling would be a lie but frankly, unlike the majority of Indonesians, I don’t cherish it as much. I like being in a new place, interacting with strangers and all, but spending hours in trains or planes sounds like a downright ‘wasting time’ to me. Thank God there are books—not music, not games, just a proper, volume-adjustable sound coming from the story-plots in those romance novels or thrilling fictions.

To count, there had been at least a thousand times that my parents told me to close the book I was reading at the back seat. They told me that reading in a moving car would impair my eyes and make me feel dizzy. Until today, I’m not sure if I wear glasses for that habit, but I’m pretty sure that ‘not reading’ would’ve made me feel dizzier. (Later they argued that I should enjoy the scenery and appreciate the world outside, but I just couldn’t help it that I was more interested in what happened
in the next chapter.)

As I grow up, I travel by myself, and people still think I’m crazy for reading in a boat or a bus, but seriously, the story of A in Every Day is more compelling than some polluted sea. So pardon my ignorance and take some pictures for yourself.

Oh and I also develop this skill of maintaining balance on a moving MRT/Commuter Line without having to grip on the holder because both of my hands are busy turning pages. It’s twice fun and challenging when the train is crowded.

4. A Natural Identity—and Conversation Supplier, Too

I am aware that people have said things about me—be it good or bad stuff. Having this consciousness, however, does not help me in any sorts to figure out my own identity. Because truth be told, I’m never sure if I was what people thought I was—you know, all those humbling adjectives. But when it comes to books and reading, I know for sure that I love the time I spend reading them, or just going to a library, or a bookshop and buy nothing, or stacking as many as possible to my worn out bookshelves.

‘Reading’ has become a natural identity to me, one that I’m confident in telling people about. Look. I’m not sure if I care about Indonesian youth, I’m not sure if I am to become a diplomat or a journalist, but I know that I love books, and I will continue reading them until my last days of living.

know it as a fact, and it’s such a relieving instinct.

And books don’t stop there; they also generously donate comfortable topics for conversation-starters like, “Hey, have you read [book title]?” and things usually go smooth from then on.

5. A Radar to Find the People of My Kind

I always believe that preferences are assistive elements to indicate who we are. I mean, psychologists have worked their ass off to categorize personalities into sets of four-colored boxes (choleric-melancholic-sanguine-phlegmatic or Jung’s idealist-rationalist-artisan-guardian are two examples), but I think the kind of books or the music you enjoy best can equivalently reveal who you are. Primitively, this also means that preference to ‘read’ than to ‘travel’ can also tell a person’s personality. In other words, understanding what you prefer is a way to peek inside yourself.

My preference in reading, apparently, has guided me to find a bunch of lovely people with whom I can spend hours asking questions and listening to their awesome ideas. Two months ago (or more, I’m not sure when it started), we decided to gather and discuss about the books we read, or a bunch of unrelated thoughts about which we somehow had the urge to discuss upon. The latest one is available on SoundCloud, although it was too philosophical to be called a typical book club discussion. We call these meetings #BookTalk, because well, it involves a lot of talking about books. (D’oh.)

By the way, you can email me if you’d like to join our next lunch.

6. A Beautiful Mess of Mind-Twisters and Heart-Exercisers

There are times when books drive you crazy. Like when Mr. Darcy sweeps you off your feet, or when you wanted to shout to Dexter Mayhew’s ears that he should’ve realized sooner that he loved Emma Morley. Some other times, they make you angry because what you find in a book has stayed in your own mind for a long time, but its author just stole it away from you like that. And worse, they actually present it better. (I detested de Botton’s Essays In Love and Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary only because I love both so much.)

At the same time, reading also induce new thoughts and develop the existing ones to a certain level of complexity. It surprises you with new plot possibilities, calm you down with answers to your current problems, or inspire you to take new habits. Ayu Utami is one of the most talented ones in doing this, not to mention Chris Cleave and Dan Brown’s in-depth-research-supported thrillers. The feeling of going through all these tangled thoughts and ideas, having multiple braingasms until you reach the end and close the hard cover of that copy, is indescribable.

A little tip: read classic books. Remember: swimming in  first-hand thoughts (not reviews about them) is an inalienable right every reader has to claim.

7. The Truth

7.1. I don’t read 7 books in a week, okay. Stop assuming that all bookworms read unreasonably plural number of books—they read a lot and they read more than you do, but it’s not like they are bestowed with a superpower to have all the time in the world to read every single book written. The trick is this: the most clever readers don’t settle—they stop reading when they know that a book is crappy. And crappy books do exist. The smartest readers don’t read certain titles because the whole world is talking about it (exhibit A: Fifty Shades of Grey—no offense, E.L. James), and they know the kind of books they truly, sincerely love. I myself read a couple of books whose first chapters compelled me. Then I swam deeper before I’d bore my friends with all the new thoughts and ideas that
I discovered in the ocean.

7.2. I read fast, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t read wholeheartedly (people usually accuse fast-readers for that—maybe out of jealousy). It’s plausibly an inevitable skill trained by years of practice. There are, however, some paragraphs that takes your eyes off the book because you need to reserve a couple of minutes to exclusively ponder about it.

7.3. Reading English books doesn’t make an Indonesian reader a snob who ‘does not love their own country’ (don’t you even dare give me that nonsense), but again, people simply have preferences. Sometimes we have to accept that certain kinds of readings, languages, or themes are more intriguing than the others. I read many English books, but I pay my fullest respect to Pramoedya Ananta Toer, Goenawan Mohamad, and Eka Kurniawan, whose amazing works always humble me down.

7.4. Lastly, I’d have to do just to the Singaporeans (whom I badly judged in this post) and admit that they do have wonderful people who care about thoughts, ideas, and books. I learned this especially after I visited some of the awesomest literary enclaves in Singapore, including Littered with Books and Books Actuallyboth restored my faith in their local literatures.

“A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face. It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.”
—Edward P. Morgan