THE READING LIFE ... Ezra MOHD ZAID
YOUNG MALAYSIAN PUBLISHER EZRA MOHD ZAID manages ZI Publications, an independent publishing house in Malaysia. Personable and engaging, brimming with vigour and ideas, he is the kind of publisher we need in a contemporary Malaysia: broadminded, intelligent, passionate, funny and straight-talking. He completed his high school education in Geelong Grammar School in Australia and graduated with a degree in Political Science and Philosophy from The University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada.
INTERVIEW BY ERIC FORBES
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF EZRA MOHD ZAID
Where do you find the time to read with your busy schedule?
Finding the time to read for leisure is getting increasingly difficult, especially when reading for work tends to take up most of my time. But I find that my favourite time to read is while travelling, especially on a bus or plane. I also try to read between five and 10 pages every night, which is very productive, too.
Do you think reading matters?
Reading does matter. The value of reading is often underestimated. Reading opens doors to information on any subject you can think of and imagine and to knowledge that can lead you to better opportunities. It also allows you to explore and learn about things outside the world of your direct experience. To agree, disagree or even to come up with new ideas is a result of flexing those critical thinking muscles. It makes life richer and the rewards of it are very satisfying. But on a far simpler level, reading is enjoyable. Period.
For the longest time ever, before radio, television, YouTube, Facebook and smartphones entered our realm, reading was an essential activity. Obviously, it is still prevalent, but to a certain degree, there is a sense that it is no longer the primary activity. So, it is a tragedy to observe that with time, people have lost their skill and passion to read.
There are now many other exciting and thrilling options (or distractions) available aside from books; yes, we acknowledge that. But it is a shame because reading offers an unparalleled approach to being introduced to new ideas and exploring new worlds and adventures. Reading has this remarkable way of simultaneously challenging one’s beliefs and opinions, and at the same time reinforcing or clarifying some wisdom or those half-truths that somehow got lodged in our heads. The magic of it is that it kicks you off on this amazing journey where you will be always searching for more answers and asking more questions. And that can’t be a bad thing. On a practical level, it does help us stay in touch with contemporary ideas and appreciate history, which hopefully in turn, makes us more sensitive to issues of global concern.
How do we go about getting more Malaysians to read?
There are three ways of looking at the issue:
Firstly, if we’re talking about the big picture and in the long term, our national education system has to promote the reading of books in an inclusive and meaningful way. It shouldn’t stop at Little Red Riding Hood and the Pak Pandir stories at the tadika (kindergarten) level; it has to continue all the way up to secondary school so that it provides some sort of counterbalance to the daily grind of reading ‘textbook’ materials that kids have to plough through. So, sastera (literature) has to be a ‘constant’ fixture in our education system, just as the presence of mathematics and science is. It would be shortsighted of us to suggest that these subjects are not as significant.
Secondly, believe it or not, Malaysians might find books boring or uninteresting. These same folks also feel that reading a book is real hard work. My theory is that, perhaps, they possibly just haven’t found ‘it’ yet. I am referring to that one special book that they’ve picked up by accident (or choice), and the pages just turn themselves. The reading of the text seems effortless. It has a lot to do about finding the type of book or subject matter that interests you. Much like going to the movies, isn’t it? Just because it says “#1” right next to it doesn’t mean it suits you. There is a book for absolutely everyone out there, trust me. So I would encourage you to spend more time browsing in the bookshops, until you find your book. Once you do, it just opens up that window of ‘imagination’ and you’ll be on your way to the wonders beyond. That initial spark of interest will create a constant desire to read more of the same, and eventually, read something a little different as well.
Thirdly, we have got to somehow make books more affordable to readers. It is a hard truth, but books aren’t exactly affordable in Malaysia—and that is always a consideration when the reading public thinks about buying a book. That has to be addressed. I won’t go into it now, but there has to be a concerted effort by all parties concerned to make sure that books are accessible, while not burning a hole in their pockets.
What kinds of books did you read when you were growing up? Were there any books that had a significant impact on you at that early age?
Ironically, I didn’t read a lot of books while growing up. I guess I was a late reader, beginning to properly appreciate books only when I was about 16, or thereabouts. As a kid, it was all about Archie, Jughead, Betty and Veronica—the Archie comics! My mother was concerned that I wasn’t into Famous Five and Hardy Boys, but she understood. I had an Ujang or Gila-Gila phase that went on for a couple of years! But strangely enough, the first book I remember reading cover to cover was a book on the adventures of the Malay warrior Hang Tuah—and it was in English. I couldn’t put it down. That got me realising, “Wow, books aren’t so bad after all!” So this goes back to my earlier point about finding the book that’s right for you. I was lucky enough to find it and am thankful for that.
What, in your opinio, are the essentials of good fiction? What distinguishes the great novels from the merely good? (If you prefer reading nonfiction, tell me why.)
There is a lot of room for self-improvement on my part, and nonfiction somehow manages to serve that purpose in a variety of ways. There are topics that I’m already interested in that I wish to know more about, there are subjects that I have a vague understanding of and would like to know more about, and there are also topics that I was happily ignorant about, yet now find rather fascinating. Reading about the ordinary and extraordinary, about the human condition and the world we live in, continues to tickle my interest. I have a soft spot for autobiographies because they usually chart some form of evolution of the person; observing that perspective can be very insightful and fascinating.
As a publisher, what do you look for in a manuscript?
Originality and good writing are two important considerations for a good manuscript. The subject matter or idea that is being addressed sets the tone of what the reader may expect. From there, what usually complements it is that unique ‘voice’ the author brings to the work―whether it is humour, honesty, sarcasm, point of view, etc. While these aspects provide the platform for a good manuscript, it still comes back to good writing. Between writers of fiction and nonfiction, we have to appreciate that there are different styles that writers adopt as their own. But within all that, clarity and accessibility are important considerations we look out for as well. You can be elaborate or simple with words and even ideas, but rarely is the clarity of the work compromised. As a whole, a good manuscript has no specific predetermined criteria. I think it usually comprises or combines some form of purpose, imagination, intellectual significance and entertainment value.
What are your thoughts on e-books and e-book readers? Do you think they will replace physical books one day?
Books, in their current form, will still be around for a very long time. But there can be no denying that technology has drastically changed the way we communicate ideas, stories and information. In the short term, e-books and e-book readers will perhaps spark a renewed interest in reading, especially among the younger generation and it might even be their format of choice as the technology improves. However, with all the focus on being eco-friendly, this option certainly puts forward a case for readers and consumers to ponder about.
What kinds of books do you enjoy reading now, and why? What are you reading at the moment?
I naturally enjoy reading nonfiction, and I guess creative nonfiction falls into that category as well. Specifically, I have a soft spot for autobiographies because they usually chart some form of evolution of the person; observing that perspective can be very insightful and that fascinates me tremendously. Whoever it might be—actor, rock star, football manager, world leader, spiritual leader, comedian—the best writings usually tend to be raw and honest, with some humility and a sense of humour thrown into the mix as well. It then becomes an ‘easy’ read, to a certain extent, because you seem to be able to relate to it while a part of you can also wonder about it, too.
Daniel Tammet’s Born on a Blue Day is a fascinating and rare first-person account of what it’s like to be born an autistic savant. The word ‘extraordinary’ gets thrown about a lot, but this guy is really extraordinary in more ways than one, which makes his life story even more interesting.