I was lucky. I had an excellent local library growing up. I had the kind of parents who could be persuaded to drop me off in the library on their way to work in summer holidays, and the kind of librarians who did not mind a small, unaccompanied boy heading back into the children's library every morning and working his way through the card catalogue, looking for books with ghosts or magic or rockets in them, looking for vampires or detectives or witches or wonders. And when I had finished reading the children's' library I began on the adult books.
If we want to get to the bottom of things, I owe everything that I have achieved today - whatever they may be - to my love for reading as a child. I loved going to the library. I made weekly visits to the public library (it was the one in Marine Parade before it relocated to a new building 5 minutes away) and maxed out my borrowing limit every single time, such that I had to use my mother's library card. I started out reading fairy tales and Enid Blyton's children books, then moved to young adult fiction like Nancy Drew and, of course, The Babysitters' Club series. I was obsessed with it, reading literally every single book in the series, including the special editions. At one point, I could remember the exact sequence of all the books in the series - all 100 of them. I also read the spin-off, the California Diaries, and other books by Ann M. Martin. I dabbled a bit in the Sweet Valley series but never really got into it as much as my friends did. I continued to read Enid Blyton (the Malory Towers series stands out in my mind), read some R. L. Stine, read Roald Dahl (everyone read Roald Dahl)...in short, I read a lot. And looking back, the reading habit that I was fortunate enough to cultivate was absolutely crucial to my development as a person - in particular, it went a long way in helping me learn English.
When my parents moved me back to Singapore from Taiwan when I was about 6 or 7, my standard of English was so bad that my primary school didn't accept me at first. I eventually got in with family connections (all the women in my family went to that school; all my female cousins save for three went there too. It's a girls' school) and probably a generous donation from my parents or uncle, or both. I have scant recollection of English classes in primary school; when I look back on those early years of my life, what immediately stands out is my voracious reading and the way I devoured books.
I am certain that I wouldn't be where I am today if I hadn't read as much as I did, and if I hadn't enjoyed reading as much as I did. Reading has helped me attain a high level of English, such that I confidently call myself a native speaker despite my contradictory skin colour. Perhaps more importantly, reading was a critical first step to the development of what is really the only thing that I'm good at: writing. I am where I am today because I write well, and I write well because I read. I am nothing without my writing skills; I'm not particularly clever or innovative, and my ideas aren't original or even that interesting. What I can do - and I do this very well - is to express myself and my recycled ideas in a way that is convincing, forceful, powerful. Sometimes I distract the reader from the inadequacy of my argument and its lack of critical analysis, or even my own lack of conviction in my argument, with flowery language. If I didn't have the ability to write well, I wouldn't be in London right now, awaiting the official conferment of my LL.M. degree and hoping for a Distinction; I wouldn't have gone to law school and have had the luxury of bitterly regretting law school, then eventually doing well because I wrote good take-home exams and good essays and tangentially liked what I studied.
I don't know who I would be without my ability to write. Without it, I am nothing. Because of it, I have an identity. It is what I fall back on in moments of darkness; it is what I have relied on in both my academic and, to a lesser extent, professional life. And it all started in a public library in Marine Parade with the help of a laminated piece of paper functioning as a library card.
I feel sorry for people that don't read because they are not able to experience the wondrous joy of simply being transported to another world, one that you know is not real but yet feels like a place you could inhabit at the same time. They don't understand the intensely personal experience that reading can be, when a writer creates a character and tells his story in a way that alarmingly parallels yours, and the book becomes a companion, a confidant, a shoulder to lean on. I remember feeling so desperately lonely during my first month in London: the city was new, it was foreign, I had no family and friends, I didn't know what to do with myself when I wasn't in school, and social activities felt like an obligatory pretense to a social life so that, simply put, I didn't feel like a loser with no friends. I was reading W. Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage at that time, and I was particularly struck, and consoled, by Maugham's description of Philip's loneliness when he first moved to London. It was the same loneliness that I felt:
He looked at the people walking about and envied them because they had friends; sometimes his envy turned to hatred because they were happy and he was miserable. He had never imagined that it was possible to be so lonely in a great city.
And of course, there is my perpetual friend-in-need: Julian Barnes's England, England. Martha Cochrane, the anti-heroine; and Mr. Barnes' astute insight to her psyche, and that elegant way that he has of describing it. I have lost count of the number of times when I needed to feel connected to something, or to feel understood, and I turned to that book, my personal highlighted phrases (i.e. not the ones for my A Level exam) and sentences, such as:
Martha turned away with a frown and a tightness in her jaw. Why was everything back to front? She could make the Project work, even though she didn't believe in it; then, at the end of the day, she returned home with Paul to something she believed in, or wanted and tried to believe in, yet didn't seem able to make work at all. She was there, alone, without defences, without distancing, irony, cynicism, she was there, alone, in simple contact, yearning, anxious, seeking happiness as best as she could. Why did it not come?
I don't think that there's anything in the world that I love more than books, literature, writing. It's also for this reason that I feel irrationally connected to London. Most of my favourite writers are English; many of my favourite novels are set in London, or reference London in a significant way. I've been asked by a few people why I still love London even after I've visited other major European cities (Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, Rome) and I think the defining reason is because of my love for English Literature. There's something inherently inspiring about the knowledge that I live in a city where many great writers have lived, and where many great writers presently live, such as my favourite writer. London is my city and oh my god, I really don't want to leave.