Thursday, April 23, 2009

Abby WONG ... On her compulsive obsession

ABBY WONG, who believes no book is a bad book, downsized from being a high-flying financial consultant to a book buyer because she loves being surrounded by books.

I AM WILLING to admit this to you, my dear reader. I am such a voracious consumer of books that I used to steal in order to satisfy my need. Yes, I was a book thief. I stole from friends books that I felt would be better off with me. For I was a book lover, you see, and I knew I would render the most tender loving care for all books that resided on my humble bookshelf.

Unable to glom onto some of the wonderful books in the libraries, I rummaged through damaged books that were put out for disposal each month. You see, I was building my own library—a decrepit bedside table stacked with a teetering pile of books. I was 12 years old then.

My 20-odd copies of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series of children’s books were the magical realms I escaped to as I strutted about playing detective with my imaginary friends, George, Dick, Julian, and Anne. Also among my treasures were books by Judy Blume, through whose stories I began to learn the painful facts of life, and Paula Danziger, whose knack for telling humorous stories never failed to bring a tinge of joy to my lonely childhood.

The pride of my collection, however, were the four great Chinese classics: Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Red Chamber and Journey to the West. But they were merely pictorial versions for children. After being shifted from one place to another so many times, the books that I collected as a child are now nowhere to be found. But I am still a book lover and have accumulated a slew of titles.

I buy them now, paying penance for my past deeds. Better yet, I gave up corporate glamour for bookstore austerity, and frittered away my salary on books. For I would like to achieve what I failed to before: this time I am determined to build a gargantuan home library. However, my existing bookshelves are not yet majestic. But that doesn’t matter, for even the (relatively) few books I have are so charged with sentiment that smells from the past emanate from their pages, making me nostalgic about some of the pleasurable moments I have had with reading over the years.

Reigning at the centre of the shelves are history books, among which is Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust, the book that marked the start of my fanatical reading phase as a working adult. Though the need to understand this profoundly sad historic event seemed pressing at the time, later, by divine intervention, I turned to something even more eye-opening—the Arabs and the Middle East. Be it fictional or real, the story of the Middle East as a whole is one of richness, deeply felt religious feeling, irony, and injustice. As I burrowed into that vast area, it became clear to me that peace on earth hinges on the world understanding and accepting the region’s faith, culture, and people.

But if I have to name the part of my shelves that is dearest to me, then it has to be the Odd Shelf, which contains books oddly unique and somewhat significant. My odd shelf holds the myriad works of Egyptian writer and Nobel Prize laureate Naguib Mahfouz. To say that I love every one of Mahfouz’s novels is an understatement; my ardour for Mahfouz began so tempestuously it would take a gale of similar force to thwart my devotion. Whereas fantasy and myth seem surreal in modern times, Mahfouz maintains that contact in all his stories, reminding us of the validity of ancient truths, and that all deeds shall be repaid and all injustices, vindicated.

Books can be one of the best forms of entertainment, even for children. My humble bookshelves are not for me to enjoy alone; a sizeable part is for my children to house Barney, Blue’s Clues and Ladybird books. Secretly, I call it the Pet Shelf. It is my belief that children are more likely to become book lovers if they grow up surrounded by them. My six-year-old son, who used to sleep with heaps of picture books in his bed, now places a Marvel comic under his pillow and bids Spider-Man goodnight. My 17-month-old daughter, likewise, lugs along Rod Campbell’s Dear Zoo whenever we take a drive and converses with the animal characters. Books are everywhere in the house by the end of the day, but we love that, as they have become something we don’t want to live without.

Of all the pleasurable activities in life that I have enjoyed, and wish for my children, reading tops the list. Few things give me the joy that reading does. Words soothe when you are sad; stories thrill when you are bored; knowledge clarifies when you’re in doubt. So deep are the pleasures of reading, they become addictive and you become obsessed.

A world where books don’t exist? To me, it would be a world of pain with no means to ease.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of April 19, 2009


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