My five-year-old son Shuhai has an imaginary friend called Ray, and the two of them talk about and do just about anything together. One day, Shuhai asked me if I also have an imaginary friend.
Oh my God, do I have just one imaginary friend? Whenever I have a book in my hands, all the people, things and events weave an imaginary world in my mind. Imprisoned criminals, jungle explorers, discontent wives in their inner chambers, ordinary Tom, Dick and Harrys. When I read, I travel across time and space and fall into their stories. When they suffer, I feel pain. When they find salvation, I cry with joy. All of that is more real than 3D images or surround sound; it’s like I am living in—and living out — those stories.
I have always liked carrying a book with me, so that I can read when I’m waiting for the bus or for someone to arrive, or waiting for a dish to finish cooking. Time passes so quickly in this way. Perhaps it’s because of this habit that I’m never afraid of finding myself alone. Back when I was ten years old, I dared to go out alone to have meals (my parents were very busy with their work at that time, and my sister had to stay at her junior high school for after-school “self-study” sessions). I’d order my meal. As the adult diners cast curious glances at me, I would bury my head in a book and lose any sense of embarrassment. As I grew older, I’d go to the movies alone, or travel by myself — always with a book in hand. It all felt very natural, since I could read while I was waiting and never get bored. Also, because I was so accustomed to being alone, the idea of solitude had become foreign to me.
After years of reading aimlessly and with no specific purpose, I got my first experience of massive and systematic reading when I went abroad to study. During those years, it was normal for me to read more than one thousand pages of text spanning the humanities and social sciences, including classic works, historical materials and contemporary critiques. In the beginning, I suffered a lot. I almost felt like I was drowning in a sea of words. But as time went on, I somehow found a way to deal with it, and I was able to learn by analogy. Sometimes I felt like I was becoming one with reading. My biggest discovery was that, as long as I could keep myself at the desk, I was able to really dig into different subjects. Whether it was structuralism, Middle Eastern political factions and religious groups, global warming, SLR photography, or aromatherapy based on floral essences, etc. Moving from simple introductions to a subject for more in-depth research, I could convert myself from a total layperson into a type of specialist on a given topic. Ever since then, whenever I find myself in a new environment, or exposed to some interesting new topic, I resort to reading to accelerate the process of understanding or adaptation. For example, when I’m surrounded by older Indonesian people talking about gods and ghosts, I’ll take out Clifford Geertz’s The Religion of Java for reference. When I get an unexpected invitation to some party where VIPs gather and socialize, I’ll read up on the news, gossip or stories. I work hard to embolden myself, so that on D-Day I don’t embarrass myself by saying wrong things.
“It is more worthwhile to travel ten thousand miles than to read ten thousand books,” goes the Chinese saying. I have traveled quite a few miles in my life and I have come to realize something. While personal experience is more direct, what we “live” by proxy via the books we read can be even more profound, especially when it comes to what is human. Through all kinds of stories and the interior monologues of fictional figures, I experienced poverty, fame, yearning and despair. I experienced all kinds of love relationships, transcending conventional borders: homosexual love, love between people of different generations, love triangles, incestuous love, extramarital love… Those experiences all came to me when I was still very young and had never really been anywhere. In the world of literature, there is no right or wrong, but only glorious, complicated and sophisticated humanity; the more I read, the more I learn to tolerate and to empathize. I am unable to write fiction myself, and I’ve always wondered how writers manage to do it, how they can subtly create an imaginary world filled with so much sound and fury. Whenever I’ve finished reading a book, I feel like I’d lived one more life, and that my life has been projected into some new horizon again.
Not long ago, a friend asked me: “What would the ideal family life look like for you?” Looking over at my two little children running around, never stopping for even a moment, I suddenly pictured a scene of extreme serenity and plenitude. I had a dream: it was sometime in the future, the four of us would sit in the same room, each with a book in hands, indulging in the world of reading. My friend asked, “What kind of family life is that, without any kind of interaction?” I responded: “To fill a life with books is like opening the ‘anywhere door’ (dokodemo doa どこでもドア) from the Japanese manga Doraemon (ドラえもん).” The experience, knowledge and joy that my children can get from reading far exceeds what I can give them as a mother. I feel happy that their little minds are broadening day by day. They are starting to understand the value and satisfaction their parents get from books. How could such understanding and harmony lead to anything other than a happy family?
Text by Mullinax Chuang, Gourmet, Anthropologist; English translation by Hsu Lisung