Reading English Books
Last Saturday, I was invited to speak in a public forum of the Hong Kong Reads campaign, which promotes English reading to Hong Kong students. Reading English books is really a great thing to promote to our younger generation.
The following is compiled from my notes and responses to various questions in the public forum yesterday, April 16, 2011, on the subject of "Reading as a Popular Culture," with a group of mostly secondary school and university students.
Why is reading cool? What would be the one word to describe reading as a cool thing?
I actually don't quite know for sure what makes reading cool. But as long as you yourself think you are cool, you must be cool. These days, when everyone else is playing Facebook or Angry Birds on their iPhones, and you are reading a real book on a Kindle or another ebook, wow, that's cool!
If I am to use one word to describe reading as cool, I would use the word innovative. Dare to be different, dare to think and do something new and creative.
What books did you read when you were young?
For many years, my reading habit has been quite diverse. One of the first English books that I remember would be Carl Sagan's Cosmos. In 1979, there was a TV documentary shown on TVB Pearl also called Cosmos, which was narrated by Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan, and it got me interested in reading the book, which was not only about astronomy, the origin of life and the speculation on extraterrestrial life, but also the history of science itself and the impact of science on human history, philosophy and culture.
Later, I went on to read several other books of Sagan: Broca's Brain, The Dragon of Eden, etc. By now, after so many years, I have forgotten most of the content of these books. But what I still recall vividly the belief held so strongly by Sagan in his approach to science and knowledge in general: skepticism, which was the core concept of his quest for the truth. Carl Sagan passed away in 1996, but the marks left by his words on me were indelible.
I also want to use Sagan's books to point out that even science students can read books too, and reading is not just for or about more literary works.
On the other hand, I believe there is always a place for reading of literary works for any of us. When I was in high school and later on entering college, I became interested in reading English classics of the 19th century. I read Charles Dickens' A Tales of Two Cities, but my favorite author remains Thomas Hardy, who wrote the stories of his times of young people who rebelled against the conventional thinking and challenged the standard of morality of their times.
I started with Tess of the D'Urbervilles, again first because of the 1979 Roman Polanski movie Tess, and for a young teenager, getting so intrigued by Nastassja Kinski, the actress who played Tess. Then I went on to read most of Hardy's other novels: The Return of the Native, Far from the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, and so on, but my favorite was Hardy's last novel, Jude the Obscure -- a most tragic and romantic tale of rebels of its times, young people trapped by conventional laws and religions. I still highly recommend Jude the Obscure today.
What do you think about book series like Twilight and Harry Potter?
I watched all the Harry Potter movies, and that was enough for me. I never read the books. Maybe I am too old for that now. I have not even watched the Twilight movies, let alone the books. I read The Lord of the Ring series, and I liked it, although it was difficult to read.
But I guess my reading choice may sometimes have to do with the people I know around me, they are not the kind who gathered and talk about Harry Potter, but instead they do talk about Lisbeth Salander, the lead character in Swedish author and journalist Steig Larsson's Millennium trology: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, and The Girl Who Played with Fire. It was sad however that he died in 2004 shortly after he turned in the manuscript of these three books, so there will not be a fourth one.
How about reading on ebooks?
Over the years, I have been reading fewer books. Like many other people, I spend too much time on the Internet, my PC, and then my smartphones, and those apps and social media like Facebook, Twitter and Weibo. Gosh they are really addictive! So, I have become a book collector, not a book reader anymore. I feel that I am "out."
But I am changing my habits with the Amazon Kindle in the past year. I can read books on my Kindle, as well as on my iPad and iPhone -- one account anywhere. And, more and more of my friends are getting a Kindle too. To me and to our generation, maybe it has become the best Internet addiction rehabilitation tool!
The Kindle is light and its battery life is long. But it is a relatively simple, even boring machine. There is no game to play on it, not even color -- just black and white. It has the ultimate connectivity of free 3G roaming anywhere in the world (so one can buy books anywhere they go), with basic email and a web browser (which makes it a last resort tool for circumventing the Great Firewall), but it is slow enough that one would rather just read a book with it.
But I agree that there is still room for printed books. At least other people's books that I can borrow!! Honest, I haven't bought many new English books since I used my Kindle. For more new printed books, I need a bigger apartment!
Back on my Kindle, I am so tempted to buy all the classics all over again. Just now, I bought the complete works of Thomas Hardy for US$0.89, and those of Charles Dickens for US$2.39. What a bargain for priceless knowledge!