To me, reading is like traveling in a time machine across the universe, going back to the past and forward into the future, shuttling between fantasy and reality.
To those with a curious mind, reading is a master key to the world. Reading is also like turning on the radio when you are in some remote location, scanning the frequencies in search of similar minds and one’s self.
While the significance of reading goes without saying, there are all sorts of hindrances in life that distract one from reading. Looking back at my past experience, I think that certain occasions are ideal for diving into the world of books and reading a great deal.
Oddly enough, when you feel low, it can be a great time for reading. When life is tough and there seems to be no way out, when you feel lost and worry about the future, you can always find answers in books. More than a decade ago, I had a premonition that macroeconomic problems could derail my career, which had been going well up until that point. I struggled about whether I should quit a job that looked appealing to everyone else, but was actually eating away at my mind. Totally at a loss as to what to do, I turned to reading for comfort. And somewhere, somehow, those who under-stood me appeared before me: Chiu Miao-Chin, Luo Yijun, Osamu Dazai, Haruki Murakami, Hermann Hesse, Gabriel García Márquez… They all opened their hearts to me. With immense empathy, they shared with me all the sadness and helplessness they had gone through. They inspired me to review the immaturity of my childhood and the vicissitudes of my youth, to look for a new spiritual identity. They taught me to stare at the obscurity of life and all those vain and futile fights. Consequently, I was not alone anymore. I was able to recharge my batteries and meditate on the best course for the future.
Secondly, travel provides the perfect context for reading. But what I intend to address here is not exactly reading while traveling, but reading for the sake of travel. A few years ago, my friends and I embarked on an expedition called Running the Silk Road. We aimed to complete an ultra-marathon across six countries from Istanbul to Xi’an, covering a distance of 10,000 km. As head of the project, I resigned from my job to dedicate myself to fundraising, putting together an international team, handling diplomatic and visa-related affairs, managing logistics, mobilizing teamwork, and solving issues related to adaptation or friction within the team. Apart from all those issues to deal with, I spent a great deal of time reading to learn as much as possible before this unprecedented journey. I read about the origins and migrations of nomadic people along the Silk Road, and the rise and fall of their kingdoms and civilizations through the centuries. I also read about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of China. The idea was to prepare myself so I could connect with local people during the five-month trip.
Because I did all that reading, it was easier for me to communicate with strangers. We were able to move beyond superficial rituals and open our hearts to each other naturally. We shared experiences and exchanged perspectives, seeing our common sufferings and the multiple meanings of human life. In retrospect, it was reading that helped shorten mental distances, enriched the meaning of the expedition, and gave us faith and courage to complete the challenging mission.
The third great occasion for reading is writing. When the Silk Road project was coming to an end, some friends encouraged me to write a book about the expedition. It would be a testament to that rare experience full of sweat and tears, frustration and challenge, love and excitement. Though I had always wanted to write since I was young, I doubted whether I was still capable of delivering quality writing. Yet, once I started the enterprise, I realized that my voracious appetite as a reader enabled me to write fairly readable things. I felt the immense joy of writing as a result of reading. To my surprise, Running the Silk Road met with considerable success; it has gone into its ninth printing.
Recently, I finished writing another book, Explore the Golden Age of Art, about the history of modern art in Europe. To prepare, I traveled to various places in Europe for field study and read extensively to lay the factual and theoretical groundwork. My reading was not limited to core subjects like painting, sculpture and architecture; it also extended to historical events and literary works about the evolution of art from the 16th century through the 20th century. I fully enjoyed the pleasure of reading for the sake of writing. Over that time period, I immersed myself in brilliant work from one of the best eras for art and literature. Among the hundreds of books I read, several authors were particularly fascinating. Charles Baudelaire’s beautiful and decadent poems, Emile Zola’s eloquent and righteous propositions, Gertrude Stein’s unique and poetic murmurings, and Ernest Hemingway’s tough and terse prose stood out to me. The imagination and the evocative power of these literary works are infinitely inspiring.
For years, I have always had a book with me at all times, so that I can — in the words of Harry Potter author J. K. Rowling: “Have a place I can go and be happy” — whenever I am free. Although the smartphone does take up some of our personal time, it can only fill up some boring moments at best. It will never do what reading does: becoming our soul mate and influencing the way we live.
Text by Richard Chang, Entrepreneur, Writer; English translation by Richard Chang and Hsu Lisung