Dearest Mum & Dad,
You both know how much I love reading. Reading is a solo journey into a world filled with the unknown. Reading is a comparatively inexpensive, sometimes free, vacation to another country or another realm. Reading allows me to live the lives of children, teenagers, adults, wizards, witches, hobbits, dwarfs and heck, even animals without having to meet them face to face. I’ve lived a lot of lives ever since you first brought me to the brand new library in the brand new shopping mall just 10 minutes away more than 10 years ago.
Back then, we made almost weekly trips to the library, always borrowing the maximum quota of 4 books each. I remember bumbling about the children’s section with my sister, looking for “animal books”. The books we read mustn’t have had drawings or pictures of people in them. Not even a scrawny pair of legs. That must have pissed you off a bit, because other people’s children were making “progress”, upgrading to wordier books that almost always involved a human character. It’s weird thinking back about this quirkiness of ours when I’ve read great explorations of the human nature in tomes such as those in the Harry Potter and the A Song of Ice and Fire series. And loved them.
Actually Mum, you were the one who introduced me to the parallel universe where people have lives so similar, yet so different from our own. It was 2003, we were imprisoned at home, under your orders. No outings, no mall trips, NO SCHOOL. I couldn’t be happier. It was during the peak of the worldwide SARS outbreak when you made the trip to the library alone, with the aim of bringing back a couple of books to keep us sane at home. Without our incessant pestering, you took home books with people in them. Worse, books about people. I was so angry by your blatant ignorance of my commands. I was also the first to cave in to the calls of Fred and Joe Hardy from the canvas tote bag you placed on the floor. I remember fumbling with the thickest book I had ever touched, trying to hold it up. I remember the tiny words on a browning page and only one picture near the front of the book. How am I ever going to finish this adult book?
It didn’t take too long, I found out. In fact, it didn’t take long at all. I read the double-copy of the Hardy Boys mystery cover to cover within a few days, not wanting to put it down when I had to. And I yearned for more. I can’t remember which story it was, but it fascinated me in ways those cartoonish kids’ books never did. Soon, I was borrowing books about people willingly.
The very first novel I owned? Quite surprisingly, it was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. My classmates had been raving about this Harry Potter series and many of them brought the monster of a book to school to show off how much they could read. Being a child who never liked going with the flow, I resisted… until one day, we came upon a bargain trolley at a supermarket in Malaysia, selling the giants for only RM10. That was $5 in 2004, and $3.90 today, according to exchange rates. You asked me if I wanted one. “A lot of people are reading this book,” I answered carefully. Sensing that I didn’t outright say no, you pressed, “It’s really cheap now, you might not have another chance.” After thinking too much and pissing you off, I decided to get it.
That book taught me about teenagers. How strange, yet wonderful these people were. I was 10 when I first read it, and boy, was it educational. I learnt about love, first kisses, friendship and death. Death. I had never come across this in any of the books I had read. Sure, people died in mystery books, but seeing a character you had grown to love die, that was new, and extremely painful. Till today, my favourite adult character in the Harry Potter series is Sirius Black. He was as much a father to me as he was to Harry.
I also think this book was my undoing. I read for hours daily, never wanting to come out of my room to eat or to do anything else. From then on, every time I wanted to buy a book, you were very hesitant. I was rejected a couple of times and when you consented, it was always followed by this line – “You must promise to not read all day.” I broke that promise countless times, even when I didn’t get to buy books. I borrowed them from the library and read. Even when I started secondary school, I spent my free time at home, reading. I hid that fact from all my friends, because not many of them found sitting down with a bunch of paper that much interesting. I finished my literature texts long before term started and even though I didn’t choose to take it as an O level subject, I kept up with my hobby.
I got my last 2 Harry Potter books just weeks before the O levels started and had to hand them over to you for “safekeeping”, so that I could concentrate on my studies and not jump onto the Hogwarts Express. I was so happy when it was all over. It meant that I could read something other than textbooks again.
However, you had started adopting a new mindset about my reading habits. You started thinking it was a waste of time. Every so often, I hear you nagging at me to “stop wasting your time and do something useful”. I get angry and sad every time I hear this and avoid sitting at the dinner table with everyone else. That makes you think I have a serious problem, a severe addiction that needed to be subdued. You’ve told me to go out with my friends more. You’ve told me to do something more meaningful. You’ve told me to do scientific research during my free time. All these are more beneficial than reading is. After all, what does a person gain from reading for long hours? An eye strain and a sore bum.
I beg to differ. Sure, these are undesirable physical symptoms (people have commented on my flat bum), but while others are partying away or looking for new cures for HIV, I am walking down the streets of London, sitting in a flying car, riding a dragon, watching kings rise and fall. I am camping with teenagers, drinking rose wine. I am travelling backwards and forwards in time. Tell me now, is this meaningless? Is this a waste of time? If I were to argue with you more logically, I would tell you that I am studying human behaviour. I am learning how people react when tragedies befall; I am finding out why some people think too highly of themselves. This has helped me a great deal in navigating my own social life. Instead of making judgements based solely on a person’s behaviour, I am inclined to think that there is a reason behind that selfishness, that anger and that neediness. I understand why some people “speak without thinking” and why some are “far too quiet”. Do you think I would have been able to counsel so many people, including yourself, if I had not read a book in my life?
Given all that, I also need an escape from the real world, from real problems that I’ve had to offload from other people’s shoulders. People have always drifted to me for their problems, but what about mine? No one wants to hear me out. Reading about people with more serious problems allows me to take my mind off my own, perversely. I do enjoy reading about brutal killings, screwed up people, mad kings. I know how to hide and destroy evidence after committing murders. That will definitely help should I go crazy in the future. I’ve also learnt how murderers almost always get caught. Bummer.
You’ve smashed my dreams of becoming an artist, a musician, a writer, a teacher and a zookeeper and conveyed to me your desires of me becoming someone useful like a doctor, a researcher, a nutritionist. Anything to do with science. I’m halfway through fulfilling your dreams. Please don’t take away my identity as a reader. I’m begging you for once. I want to read for the rest of my life. I want this to be the one thing I’m good at, because I’m not excelling in my studies now. I’ve lost touch with art, with music. Animals are dirty. I’m not good at writing and teaching will not give me a good income. Please let me continue to read. I assure you it’s the only thing I take great joy in doing now.
Your eldest, wisest and saddest daughter.
P.S. You remember the time I fought with you and refused to eat for 3 days when you told me to quit the band I was in. I’m stronger now and this time, I will not talk to you nor eat for at least a week. After which I will be hospitalised and you’ll have to consent no matter what.