Saturday, May 31, 2008

How I Became a Reader of Books

My friends have the impression that I am 'serious' or 'heavy' reader. They think this because my reading list these days tends towards mostly classic or serious literature, terribly boring current affairs books or Sahara dry philosophy or psychology books. What I found interesting about this impression is how they imagined that in all probability I was also an avid reader read those the entirety of Enid Blyton and Ladybird's catalogue of books in my youth. In short, they thought my reading development from young until now was respectable, diligent and therefore no doubt agreeable. Little did they know that my reading origins were quite sordid and my attitude towards books then was quite deplorable.

Until the age of about 12, the only books I really enjoyed were those with lots of pictures. And if they had Donald Duck, Goofy, Pluto and Mickey Mouse in them so much the better. It was still reading right? I mean, if a picture told a thousand words, I was reading lots of words and pretty damn quick too! So the more pictures there were, the better the book. The aesthetic quality of the pictures or cartoons were my primary concern. The present words were merely to assist in making sense of the picture and were entirely optional.

My parents bought me those Enid Blytons and Lady Birds. My dad would extol their virtues to me relishing his anecdotes about how the Famous Five had enthralled him and inspired his reading. I couldn't tell him then, but I felt none of that when I read those books without any pictures. I remember the Famous Five book he brought home for me one day and told me it was his favourite then. So with such high recommendation I set about reading it only to lose interest completely by page 5 before the adventure even started. The damn thing was just too wordy for me. This is probably why I am so impressed with any kid under 12 that doesn't read picture books.

You would think this more ironic if you knew that since my youth, I have always been surrounded by books. In my old house in Damansara Utama, there were a lot of books. My father was and is a book freak and read as much as he bought and he bought a lot. Just outside my room was a tall shelf jam packed with books (the entire Sherlock Holmes collection was stored there with most of the hardcovers) as was the family living room upstairs (that's where the Brittanica Encyclopedia was stored with the other serious fiction) and downstairs in the guest room rounded off the third part of our collection of books. The shelves in my room too had many books but as you would guess by now, they were mostly picture or cartoon books. There was one shelf reserved for those books that I was given but not interested at all. That's where my dad's Famous Five book to me eventually ended up.

My interest in books was awakened by sex. Not that I knew what it was at 12. Back then I still thought people had to get married first before they had a baby. And I must have laboured under the impression that the stork brought me over because I don't recall having any theory about how baby's came about until my literary explorations. All I knew from my sheltered existence then was that people only had babies after they were married. I never troubled my parents with how babies were born or sex. And they never troubled to tell me.

So I'm not quite sure how I came to have this overwhelming curiousity about sex, but possess it in abundance I did at 12. Instead of asking my parent's directly, I thought it best to find this out myself discreetly. I think I did this because even though it was not said outright, I sensed that there was something taboo or forbidden about the topic of sex so asking my parents was out of the question.

I set about educating myself about sex was therefore to turn to our library. I mean if we had so many damn books, there must be something about sex in there. So what I did was to seek out those books in our collection that had a beautiful or sexy lady on the cover with a provocative pose. That image smelled of sex and so I assumed that the book would have something about sex in it. Now as luck would have it, books possessing those covers were authored by Sydney Sheldon, Harold Robbins, Eric van Lustbader, Jackie Collins, and other such writers known for their intensely arousing and completely impossible sex scenes. I still remember one scene from Collin's book 'Lucky' where after the guy brought her to an explosive multi orgasm and ejaculated his spunk into her and then went on to pleasure her some more with a fantastic demonstration of cunnilingus and climaxed with him sucking out his cum from her vagina. Now being a virgin then, I had no comprehension whatsoever about the act but thought it quite impressive all the same because he did not need a straw to get it out. Ah, the ignorance of youth!

Now though I had discovered those books, I did not actually read them in their entirety. I started just flipping pages randomly at first to look for sex. I think it was because I was successful in my first few attempts at finding a scene that I intensified my efforts and slowly became more methodical in my explorations. I would now flip each page of the book and scan each page quickly for words like 'cock', 'breasts', 'fuck' and other such words that would indicate the presence of a sex scene. Once I found it I would dive in like a happy dolphin and swim about for a few paragraphs (or pages if you read Jackie Collins). But the cover method of identifying sex scenes in books though generally successful had its failings as well. Sometimes the damn cover or the title of the book was thoroughly misleading and I would find myself flipping through 300+ pages without even so much as a show of skin. Eventually, I began to realize that sex scenes had to happen by 2/3rds of the book and if there wasn't one by then, there wasn't going to be one nice long multi paged sex scene waiting for me at the end. I refined my methodology with not just my collection but with every book shop I hit and other's people's collections when the opportunity presented itself. I also came to realize that at the bookshops my life was actually made easier because there were other filthy minded bastards like me around who sought out such books and homed in on the sex scene. I don't know whether it happens these days, but if you look at the spine of authors like Jackie Collins, you will notice creases at certain areas. It was those creases that indicated that those particular areas were accessed more and held open longer than others. And voila! that's where the sex scenes generally were.

By this time of course I knew what sex was all about but found myself taking immense pleasure in reading the sex scenes. I even fancied myself a connoisseur and could anticipate the quality of sex scene of the various writers.

My methodology came under severe review one day when I was browsing one of those type of 'perused' books that we also had at home. I forget which it was now, but what I noticed was that the spine crease on the book at the shop indicated 4 sex scenes whereas to my recollection of the book I had at home, I only found 3 sex scenes. Despite my page by page scan I still missed out a sex scene! How could this be? I quickly opened the book to the 4th visible crease and there it was - the 4th sex scene that eluded me. Though it was not terribly memorable or outstanding in quality, this seriously casted doubt on the thoroughness and accuracy of my methodology and left me feeling insecure; insecure because there may be many more sex scenes that I may have left out in my previous explorations.

It was about that time that a cousin of mine who was staying with me lent me Virginia Andrew's 'Flowers in the Attic'. If you don't know what the story was about, it was about 2 brothers and 2 sisters who were kept in the attic by a mean relative and how they coped. Incest was therefore definitely on the agenda. And incest = sex scene. So it was game on.

When I was passed the book, I contemplated trying out my methodology again but with greater focus and concentration. But I think that episode made me cast serious doubt on my abilities that I thought that the best way to make sure I don't miss out on any of the sex scenes was to read the whole damn thing. And that's what I ended up doing and that I think is the first work of fiction that I read in its entirety. And though I wouldn't read any more of her stuff, I thoroughly enjoyed the book then. I went on to devour all of her books after that though I can't remember any of them now. And after I was done with her, my reading development exploded and I just couldn't read enough. However, my genre however was still questionable and limited to the heavily sex scened books. A few years later, I graduated to the classics mostly from the French side with classics by Dumas, Maupassant, Laclos, Rostandt and Flaubert. Dumas' 3 Musketeers was the first book that I finished in double time. I holed myself in my room over a weekend and remember finishing that book at about 3am in the morning. I could not sleep until I had finished the book and after doing so wished I could start it all over again.

Soon after, I moved into contemporary fiction and stayed there for a long time, occasionally dipping into the classics so I could gauge the general quality of the former. I could not read non-fiction then even when I hit University. I could take the boring legal crap but textbooks, current affairs, essays, etc. were all out of the question. Funnily enough, it as only after I came back and worked for a year that I began to take an interest in non-fiction. I think it started with Scott Peck's 'The Road Less Travelled' and carried it on from there.

Nowadays, whilst I usually prefer non-fiction, whether it is a current opinion/affair book, or one about science, or the original texts of the groundbreaking books, to fiction. And the supreme irony now being that I abhor sex scenes in my literature and think them almost embarassing these days (unless it was there for a meaningful purpose and not merely as a masturbatory stop). One of those exceptions to the rule is Cleland's 'Fanny Hill' which I get a huge kick out of reading because of the antiquated language used to describe nasty sex scenes. Careful though, it might give you a boner or wet your panties (or both!).

Having reflected on this, I have concluded that there are many ways to discover the joys of reading and that sordid beginnings need not necessarily continue forever that way. I realize now that for me, if it were not for that curiousity about sex, it is likely that I may have developed an interest much much later or perhaps not even at all, which I think to be the greater tragedy. Jackie Collins was necessary for me to get in touch with Francis Bacon. So for that I thank all those writers of sex scenes both famous and obscure for facilitating my reading development and saucily and sensually ferrying me over to my current stage. And know that books should not be judge by its cover or its introduction or sex scene.


the Anomaly said...

Totally enjoyed reading this!

art harun said...

Anooooooooooooo, where is my chapati? One please, with lotsa ghee!

the Anomaly said...

one chapati coming up. Dey thambi, ghee makes your armpits smell "pengit" you know!

art harun said...

Ya ka tanggachi? Nemind, I heard a bit of kunyit there would help...

devnull said...

such an interesting starting point ;), mine start as azerothian..