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Why I read

Literature is not life but a guide to it, although for me, a life without literature is no life at all. -ST
Richard Lim

Mon, Dec 17, 2012
The Straits Times

I have just finished re-reading A Private View (1994) by Anita Brookner. Its protagonist, the aptly named George Bland, is a 65-year-old retired personnel manager. His one friend, who worked in the same firm, had just died.

Bland is unmoored, by the loss of his friend and his retirement. He does not know how to fill his days. All his life a dutiful man, he now wants to be "liberated".

"To be young, to start again! But this time to be different, to be selfish, to be obdurate! One paid a heavy price for behaving well."

And he can do that with the young woman who has set up temporary residence in a neighbour's flat. Katy is the follower (and perhaps lover) of an American New Age guru, and she is looking to use Bland's flat to set up a clinic where she can practise aromatherapy, crystal therapy, tantric massage and the likes.

Kathy is what everything Bland is not. She is concerned only with herself, she pouts, she sulks and she is irritable and angry all the time. But it is her anger which attracts Bland.

"For a moment, he was afforded a glimpse of hedonism, something ancient, pagan, selfish. He saw it as a movement, headlong rush, carelessness, the true expression of the ego.

"To live like that would be to know true freedom, freedom from another's cares, or rather the cares that others imposed on one and which called on the exercise of forbearance, restraint, even virtue."

Bland wants to set up a new life with her, but like all of Brookner's protagonists, his hopes are dashed when she rejects him and leaves England. Poor Bland returns to the placid routine of his old life.

The story is consistent with Brookner's theme of the safe life versus the life of wild and selfish indulgence. In her more than 20 books, her protagonists are almost always solitary individuals (most of them spinsters with the occasional exception like Bland) who, when we meet them in the books, suddenly hope to change their sedate lives, to do something outrageous. But of course, they fail and they retreat to their old dull lives.

Brookner's stories are bleak - "soo depressing" said one young colleague whom I recommended the author's works recently - but she is a mistress at examining the interior life and solitude and the various strategies to cope with it.

The past few months, I have been re-reading her later books, mainly to absorb her exquisite language and to spend time again with her solitary heroes or heroines.

In a rare interview with The Telegraph newspaper three years ago, Brookner said she was not conscious of having a style. "I write quite easily, without thinking about the words much but rather about what they want to say. I do think that respect for form is absolutely necessary in any art form... I try to write as lucidly as possible. You might say that lucidity is a conscious preoccupation..."

V.S. Naipaul had said somewhere else that "style... is an arrangement, even an orchestration, of perceptions, it is a matter of knowing where to put what. It is more than 'an arrangement of words''.

As someone who came to English late (I grew up in a Chinese-speaking household) and who uses it in his job, I am anxious that I do not lose hold of the language. And the best way to do so is to read - and this past year, re-read - novels.

Of course, I also enjoy reading, which I believe is a blessing. As Gandhi said: "Whoever has a taste for reading good books is able to bear loneliness in any place with great ease."

The actor Omar Sharif is a reader. He said: "I cannot sleep without reading for at least a couple of hours before turning off the light. But it's a moment I cherish, to go to bed, have the light on, the book, my cigarette and my ashtray, and read in the silence of the night."

But for impressionable readers, it can be easy to think that life answers literature, and literature can clear up the world.

Anais Nin warned that literature is a concentrated dose of life. "Literature is an exaggeration, a dramatisation, and those who are nourished on it are in great danger of trying to approximate an impossible rhythm... because it gives a heightened concept of living, it leaves out the dull or stagnant moments."

Brookner opens her first book, The Debut (1981), with the sentence: "Dr Weiss, at 40, knew that her life had been ruined by literature."

For a long time, I lived as though life were literature.

I sought constant novelty and excitement and found contented, welladjusted people dull.

Like Jack Kerouac's narrator in On The Road (1957), the only people for me "are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow candles..."

It took me a while to realise that while literature is a guide to life, it is not life. I began to read books critically, and at a safe distance.

Still, I need to continue reading for my work, and to maintain my sanity.

What Graham Greene said of writing is as true for reading: "Writing is a form of therapy; sometimes I wonder how those who do not write, compose or paint can manage to escape the madness, the melancholia, the panic fear which is inherent in the human condition."

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