time to read

Stone school bench in the Open Book cafe at Grassroots Book Room, Photo by J

Grassroots Book Room 草根書室 is fast becoming one of our favourite places on this tropical island. Although my Chinese is not good enough to figure out half the books there (or less!), on a Saturday night, that place is an oasis. There is a respective silence, the books so lovingly arranged, and the bookstore owners know their stuff and never bother you.

Last Saturday, we realised only when we got there that they were hosting a Q&A session with a Malaysian writer who lives in Taiwan. We didn't know who he was but the conversation seemed interesting enough for J to bear with the crowd.

Towards the end of the session, as the questions thinned, the host invited a student to speak, impromptu, on behalf of her peers. Somewhat stunned, she took a while to gather her thoughts -

"I... I... I... I... You...[the audience laughs] you...you said that young people today are glued to our mobile screens, so I would like to ask...how can we ensure that literature does not become irrelevant (the Chinese phrase is 脫臼, which has the sense also of being left behind, dislocated) to the young?"

The writer was unfazed by this innocent attack.

"I think literature can be useful for young people as it will help them better articulate and express themselves." *Ouch* I paraphrase liberally the rest of his reply: "Whatever it is, even if contemporary writing does not appeal to you, it is ok - I would still recommend to a young person that they at least read the classics. Literature has such a long history - everything about human experience has been written about. There is nothing new that hasn't been written about. Love, loss, elation, sorrow, suffering, loneliness ...you will find every facet of human experience already expressed and examined in books."

That night, I walked out of the bookstore with Tall Tales and Misadventures of a Young Westernized Oriental Gentleman (NUS Press, 2014), Singapore writer Goh Poh Seng's recollection his student years in Ireland. The prose is confident, direct, unclouded, honest.  What is said of infatuation and love, friendship, worship, self-doubt and assurance in those stories of one young man's experience in the 50s are no less real today.

Time has a funny way of working when you read.


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