INSPIRING: Every book is an adventure in itself
King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard has all the attributes of an interesting novel -- the adventure, drama, intrigue and setting. But for a village boy in Standard Four, the novel was a tough read. That was the first English novel I discovered back in 1963. I had no dictionary. I studiously underlined every word I didn't understand, which was almost 98 per cent of the content. I soldiered on, rereading every line, again and again.
When my English teacher spoke about the works of "a great English dramatist, Mr William Shakespeare", curiosity took the better of me. I took the courage to inquire if he had any one of those dramas. He looked at me, perhaps bewildered, the boy whose command of English was the poorest in class, wanting to read the book by English language's greatest writer. He gave me Hamlet, probably the most difficult of Shakespeare's plays. Again, except for words like a, the, and, why and such, it was almost unreadable. I made it a point to copy every word (photostat machines were eons away) and underlined every sentence.
When I joined an English school in 1960, I entered a new world and even stranger culture. The books were imported from England. The school had no library when it started. The nursery rhymes were real eye-openers. It didn't matter that those rhymes about the London Bridge, the Duke of York, Humpty Dumpty or Yankee Doodle were alien to us, but we learned fast and furious. A village thug made it a point, in between prison times, to get me materials, mostly comics, and some real gems in English. I helped him with some chores and in return he threw me some books, including The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope and The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. These books opened a new horizon, a different one from the one I grew up in. I fell in love with books.
My encounter with English novels prepared me for my foray into understanding Malay novels both by Malayan and Indonesian writers. Of course, my first books in Bahasa Melayu were Salah Asuhan and Di Bawah Lindungan Ka'aba by great Sumatran authors Marah Rusli and Hamka respectively. Many of these books changed me, emotionally and intellectually. I have not looked back since then, devouring books of all genres, good or bad, masterpiece or otherwise, or just little, simple works by unheard-of authors. Every book has its positives. Every book is an adventure in itself.
The first local novel that enthralled me was Salina by A. Samad Said. It was his first novel. I read the novel 17 times. I remember every scene, every incident, every twist and turn. I was obsessed. In 1985, I requested to adapt the novel for stage, which Samad readily agreed. I wrote the adaptation and directed the play myself. I had adapted Anwar Rithwan's novel, Hari-Hari terakhir Seorang Seniman, for stage earlier. After Salina, I adapted a short story, Rumah Kedai Di Jalan Seladang, by the legendary journalist and writer, A. Samad Ismail. I count Harun Aminurashid, Kamaluddin Muhammad, Ishak Haji Muhammad, Usman Awang, Arena Wati, Adibah Amin and Faizal Tehrani among my favourite local writers.
I spend many lonely hours reading some of the most impenetrable classics known to man. No, I am not a literary scholar. I am forever a student of literature. I devoured Ulysses, Moby Dick, Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, War and Peace and Don Quixote with the obnoxious intent to please myself. And, on the pretense of understanding popular culture, I enjoyed works by John La Carre, Jeffrey Archer, even Stephen King.
There is such a thing as the power of books. It challenges, it provokes, it disturbs, it enlightens. Nicholas A. Basbanes wrote Every Book its Reader: The Power of the Printed Word to Stir the World.
This book is in fact a journey into understanding how books have "made things happen" in the world and how they have both "nudged the course of history" and fired the imagination of many people.
Let's relook at books in the time of ferocious onslaught of social media. Those little-known books that I found some 50 years ago had shocked yet inspired me. The printed word has still the power to stir the children of today, to steer them away from the technological gadgets that have distracted them so much from enjoying real life.
Johan Jaaffar | Twitter:@Johan_Jaaffar | firstname.lastname@example.org NST Opinion Columnist 05/04/2014