Where Did All the Books Go?

Whole books reduced to a character, a concept, an example…

The book I'm currently reading.
The book I’m currently reading.

Good morning/afternoon/evening dear readers,

I hope you’re well.

More impertinently, I hope my absence has been missed. I’ve certainly missed writing for you, and I’d hate to think my affections one-sided.

It has been a month since my last proper post (Labels). And, the writing-addict that I am, I’ve been trying to find a topic to write about for the past week. (This – of course – has nothing to do with the fact that I’m going into my second week of revision…)

I don’t know about you, but what gets me writing is finding a topic that clicks. I keep a list of potential topics – things I want to write about at some stage – but for a given topic to get off that (ever-growing) list, there must be a stimulus, an event, a something that screams at me. Labels, for example, had been on the list for a good two months before – one random day – the idea of juxtaposing heuristics and stereotypes came to me. The whole thing clicked, and off I went. (Figuratively and literally. I was at the airport, about to board a plane, when I had the idea.)

So, what got this baby off the back burner? Nothing other than an existential crisis, one expressible (yes, this is a word – I checked) in the seemingly innocuous question: where did all the books go?

Wait. That wasn’t dramatic enough. Let me try again.

Where did all the books go?

I do realise that repeating the question in a dramatic manner in no way contributes to your understanding of my existential crisis. So, if you’ll allow me to explain.

Reading in Bangkok, 2013.
Reading in Bangkok, 2013.

Before I begin, let me just say a few words: I’m dead serious about what you’re about to read.

With that said, I welcome you to the innermost core of my being:

I read a lot. I like reading. It is the first of three activities I remember from my childhood – the other two being playing with my toy cars and dinosaurs (I didn’t do dolls), and looking unhappily into the camera each time my dad tries to take a picture of me. (What’s up with that, anyways? Is it just me, or is it a universal children’s thing where you rebel against having no control by making a point of looking pissed off in every single photo taken of you between the ages of 5 and 15?)

I remember reading on the floor. At the table. On the sofa. In the car (despite getting car-sick every, single time). In my bed. At department stores. And in many a number of other places. I was reading anywhere and everywhere.

Most of all, though, I remember reading on the white tiled floor of my house. Vividly. I can recall the coldness and the hardness of the tiles against my skin, the mild throbbing pain in my elbows from supporting my weight (I was a chubby one), the shadow on the page where the light couldn’t reach, how the light reflected too brightly off the smooth white paper (I used to hate that), and how much more agreeable the coarse, brown paper was to look at. I remember all this as if it was only yesterday when I was sprawled on the floor, glued to the pages of a book, oblivious to the world around me.

What did I read? Anything and everything. But mostly fictions. I remember reading them first in Thai, then in English (my first English book, very typically, was Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). I remember reading fantasy, chick flicks, mysteries, murders. With age, the proportion of non-fictions grew, though not always at the expense of its other.

Books were literally at the centre of the first 18 years of my life. My happiest memories from those years, at least the ones I can recall, invariably involve a bookstore, a book, or both. When my parents took me to the department store on the weekends, I would make a beeline for the bookstore and lose myself in between the shelves: taking in the scent, devouring with my eyes all the possibilities, all the books – unopened, unread, unexplored. I went so far as to undertake to write two myself in my final year of high school, though those endeavours were soon aborted. (I still have the drafts. I’ve even got the whole storyline figured out for one of them. Maybe one day…) When I started carrying a bag, the Number One item I was sure to have on me was a book. I felt naked without a book. I still feel naked without a book.

No. 41. Took me quite a few months to finish the series.
No. 41 A Song of Ice and Fire – Took me quite a few months to finish the series.

I’ve read so many books I lost count. In January 2011, I began compiling a list of every book I read for pleasure (i.e. not including textbooks and other academic or professional material), and the tally (January 2011 to March 2014) now stands at 44. Which I know doesn’t sound like a lot. Imagine, though, that this was alongside a degree and all the activities a twenty-something student living abroad felt obliged to participate in.

Before the age of 18, all I had was school and my books. And I was reading all the time. Literally. To the point that my parents would get really annoyed with me. “Are you eating, or are you reading?” mom would ask. To which I would reply with a shrug, or silence (horrible child that I was), before continuing to read and eat my lunch simultaneously. (I’m pretty certain all my books have food stains in them. And no, I no longer read while I’m eating – I watch series instead… not sure if that’s an improvement…) In short, I must have read hundreds of books in my childhood through my teens. Hundreds.

Of those hundreds, how many do I remember? Very, very few. I can count them all off on my fingers and still have several to spare. In fact, the only book I remember enough of to reconstruct in my head is Volume One of the Princess Diaries. And even in this instance, I suspect it’s due to me having seen the movie a gazillion times (I maintain that I discovered Anne Hathaway) rather than the book being especially memorable. But then, where did all the books go? The hundreds of books that I read, the pages that I flipped through, the words that I ran my eyes over – where did they all go?

I remember reading them. But I don’t remember them. Artemis Fowl was one of my favourite characters – if not my favourite – and I’ve read all the books in the series. But if you ask me to tell you a story from the book, can I piece together a coherent narrative? No. Do I remember the name of the heroine? No. I can recall pieces of information here and there, but they’re few and far between. I loved the stories, but now all that’s left of them is incoherent flashes.

Where did the rest go?

I’m dead serious asking this. So much of my life has been spent reading, so many hours – day and night – consumed on the pages of a book. Too much for me to dismiss not remembering any of them as an insignificant fact of life.

Reading in Japan, 2014.
Reading in Japan, 2014.
Reading in Barcelona on my first trip to Spain, 2013.
Reading in Barcelona on my first trip to Spain, 2013.
Reading in London, 2014.
Reading in London, 2014.

Is there a special place in my brain where all those wonderful characters, stories, theories, experiments, lessons – accumulated over nearly 2 decades of reading – are stored, ready to be tapped when the occasion arises?

Reading is one of the few activities, if not the only, in which I can wholly lose myself. Reading transports me to another world, a world where time and place do not exist, a world with no worries or sorrows, a world from which I draw my strength, my inspiration. How is it that I remember so little of this world that, often, was my last bastion against insanity?

Am I to content myself with the bits and pieces that I’ve somehow retained? Whole books reduced to a character, a concept, an example? Is that the way of the world? Is that the best my brain can do?

Without a shadow of a doubt, reading has forged me into the person that I am today. And I am forever grateful to my parents for putting the first book in front of me and for doing whatever it was that they did to get me to read it. But I just can’t help but wonder… How much of the person that I am now can be traced back to the books that I read? How many of those hundreds of books ended up having an impact? Is the priority I’ve given to reading justified? Should I have spent more time on the piano, the ballet, friends-making – all the things I was too busy reading to consider doing, let alone actually do?

Have I just been wasting time?

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