Like a butterfly, I read from book to book, from one book shop to another. In 70s southern Taiwan, summer heat lingered into late evenings. At nine o’clock in the evening, the stores began to shut, I put down my last book; I remerged from a cavernous book-mart; I unlocked my bike, then cycled home.
Like a butterfly, I returned to this garden of books the next night. The countless tables were like beds of many flowers, enticing me back with magnificent blooms of many worlds. I hovered from table to table, like a butterfly.
In many ways, I am thankful that I grew up in a household where no one went to a university. No one could ever impose their reading tastes on me, not my siblings, not even my parents. “Reading” in Chinese means “read books”, and “reading books” means “doing school work”. Anything not included in the syllabi was held with the deepest suspicion by my parents. Living in a world when success was largely determined by examinations, there was no such a thing as “reading for pleasure”. Reading served only one purpose – to pass exams, to succeed.
But I did read other stuff. A lot of random stuff. Stuff that had no direct relevance to school work. Stuff that would never help me pass exams. Stuff that nevertheless caught my imagination.
When I moved school in Year 4, I felt lost. I went from top of the year for three years to someone who languished in the bottom half of my class of 50 plus. Instead of collecting prizes and being the start pupil who was the envy of many of my peers and the dream child of their parents, I became a nobody. In Year 5, a new initiative was introduced to promote reading. The pupils were encouraged to donate books to create a library in each class. My class was no exception. I don’t remember what I contributed, but I remember many story books were brought in.
We used tailoring awls to drill holes in the top-right-hand corners of the books to put black waxed threads through to make loops. Then we hung up all our books on nails along a wooden batten running the full length of the back of the classroom. In some classes, books skirted round the room like a colourful garland of beautiful flowers. In our class, the books overlapped each other like fish scales of mesmerising colours, gleaming in the summer sun.
One day, I dutifully picked up a book to take home to read; it was the story of King Lear. Like I said, stories were not considered school work, so I hid myself at the roof top extension of our new house to read amongst the unpacked boxes and other stuff scattered about the place. The sun was shining outside, but I was transported to Lear’s world. The world of betrayals, defiance and utter devastation. Soon, tears were streaming down my cheeks. I sobbed inconsolably – for Lear, for Cordelia, and ultimately, for the loyal Kent.
I resurfaced, and the world was a very different place. Such a powerful emotion was alien to me – after all I was only 11, or maybe 12 – and I only learned its name after I had gone up to university to read English. It was catharsis.
From Shakespeare to Hesse
After passing my university entrance examination, I spent the summer reading Crime and Punishment in Chinese transition. I read Chekov, too. I continued to read miscellaneously, but mainly novels in the “Western Classics” section in the bookshops in my hometown. Without pocket money, I used all the local bookshops as libraries. Walking past the proprietor at the counter was always an awkward moment. In order to continue reading adventures, I had to note down where in the novel that I was reading mentally from the previous visit to one shop so that I could continue my reading in another. Alternating my visits like a nonchalant butterfly was the only way to avoid being detected by the eagle-eyed shop owners (yes, I was banned from one bookshop near my house).
At university, I could finally read “story books” legitimately. My mother remained suspicious of novels (“small talk” in Chinese), though she was very pleased with my getting into the most competitive and prestigious arts subjects – English. My eclectic reading habit like a butterfly remained. I began to read publications of Chinese left-wing literature of the 20s, such as novels written by Lu Xun, Shen Congwen and Zhang Zuoren, etc., whose works were banned in Taiwan.
My attention finally turned to world literature. Again, the bookshops near my university were my treasure troves. The “World Literature” section was where I spent the little money that I had. I worked my way through the Chinese translations of Ibsen, Kafka, Camus, Thomas Mann, Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, etc. that were published by the “New Waves World Literature”. But it was Hermann Hesse who lifted me from the doom of Schopenhauer to a realm of sublime introspection and transcendental compassion.
Even now, I still read like a butterfly. Like a butterfly riding the summer breeze from flower to flower, from garden to garden, and from field to field. I have sampled some of the most exquisite imaginations and some of the most extraordinary thinkings. As a child, I read without much guidance; as a teacher, I show my passion for learning and love for great imagination from whatever I read with them.