I don’t remember when I first entered the main Kinokuniya Books store in Singapore, but I always remember how overwhelmed I was. The bookstore was the largest non-Japanese branch and featured books of any subject you could think of. For a young kid like me whose only exposure to media was children’s cartoons, this world of books is more exotic than the footage of jungles and deserts in National Geographic and Discovery Channel.
So I didn’t know what to pick. But I remember I bought a SAS Survival Handbook, which I still own to this day. The color illustrations of tree fungi gave me an inspired hope that if the plane I was on flew down the waters and I was the only survivor, this book could save my life (one of my favorite movies then was Castaway, that FedEx propaganda film where Tom Hanks becomes friends with a volleyball). I always saw books as a world to acquire knowledge.
Today, I think reading is a good way to kill time when you are stuck in the airport or a traffic jam. I like to go to a nearby cafe and read. Unfortunately, I can’t always be that guy you see in Starbucks — the one who always drinks a frappucino and reads a Phillip K. Dick book. I take care of my nephews, attend wedding processions, become an existentialist as I wait for my sisters to finish shopping, wait for my mother to lose money in the casino, and so on; that’s where the bulk of my reading comes from. I have nothing to do, so I better get a book to read — and I hope it’s fun.
That’s how I’ve always read. Long gone were the days when I could read War and Peace in my bedroom and struggle with some of the more boring parts. I’m impatient, intolerant, and more importantly addicted to fun. This list and the following recommendation lists to come are made in that mindset: I want to read something fun while still being able to commit to other interests and life.
But I also recognize that it is easy to be overwhelmed by the world of books. While it may inspire wonder and awe, it is also a source of terror and confusion. After reading the Harry Potter series, I remember feeling unsure what to read next. If people told me there were books even more interesting than the series, I might have read a lot more when I was younger (I’m a late reader as evidenced by this post).
So I hope I’m a decent tour guide into the world of books. Like many tour guides, I like to believe I am not a bore and I’m actually providing important information to the curious people interested in the history and the cultures of the world. I’m probably the worst boring person to do this, but I remember a tour guide describing their profession as something like this:
“We’re paid to talk, so we gotta talk.”
I gotta talk too.
(Disclaimer: I’m testing the Amazon Affiliates program and if it’s successful, I will use it only for these posts and anything linking to Amazon will be labeled clearly as such. I appreciate it if you use the links to buy these books.)
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
There’s always a thread on r/Books that goes like this: someone has just finished college; they used to read, but they were swamped with coursework and the novels they were forced to read in literature classes tend to be the dullest thing they’ve ever read. But now, they’re free and they want to get back to it. Where should they start?
It’s not an unusual scenario. Unfortunately, well-read people are prone to criticize the ubiquity of these threads because they can’t imagine a world without books. Neither is this scenario: a video gamer wants to try out books, but they aren’t sure where to start. That particular scenario is actually why I’m beginning this series because someone asked me for that.
I used to be like that, so I know the struggle.
That said, I don’t really know how to “start” per se. There’s really no good way to start reading voraciously. It’s like getting into a video game genre or a film movement; easy ways don’t exist. You’re in it or you’re not.
But I always try anyway and tend to recommend books that I’m pretty sure people will like and actually finish. These books tend to be short, interesting, and most importantly damn fun. I’m sure you who are taking notes now are anxious to start and finish something, so I always have this in mind.
That’s why I always recommend If on a Winter’s Night, a Traveler by Italo Calvino (Amazon). The first paragraph begins like this:
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything: just hope they’ll leave you alone.
“You”, the reader — yes, you — are the protagonist of this little book. You are the subject. You want to do something that’s a bit different from what you usually. You want to read.
the sort of person who, on principle, no longer expects anything of anything. There are plenty, younger than you or less young, who live in the expectation of extraordinary experiences: from books, from people, from journeys, from events, from what tomorrow has in store. But not you. You know that the best you can expect is to avoid the worst. This is the conclusion you have reached, in your personal life and also in general matters, even international affairs. What about books? Well, precisely because you have denied it in every other field, you believe you may still grant yourself legitimately this youthful pleasure of expectation in a carefully circumscribed area like the field of books, where you can be lucky or unlucky, but the risk of disappointment isn’t serious.
You are probably thinking like that as you read this post by me. Maybe this is just an experiment, a break from the mold. But you also want to find something special. That’s why you’re reading the post and adding this book on your Amazon wishlist.
You get a bit excited and ahead of me. Instead of waiting for Amazon, you go to a brick-and-mortar store and follow the “visual trail” of books,
forcing your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified,
Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.”
You finally find If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. You get to read it. Then, you realize the pages are missing. Someone else bought the book before you according to the bookstore owner. So you go, you search, you journey for the rest of the book.
That’s what the book is about. You meet people who write, who read, and who don’t do either — just like the real world. It explores the anxiety of readers, the romance of an adventure into different worlds, and that compulsion to finish something we all have. In the midst of the confusion and excitement in a book — or even your favorite media — we like to forget why we need to read as a society.
When we read, it isn’t just an intellectual exercise but a new start to something big. The ending doesn’t really matter and there’s plenty of books we will read and just stall. Yet, the journey we have taken never really leaves us. If anything, when we reread, we begin again on a new path. The sights may be familiar, but the journey is new and refreshing.
We’re trying to find new experiences, experienced previously or not, in any activity we do. Reading is one way to learn about ourselves and the world. If we don’t like to read, we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. There’s other ways to do that: watching a film is my preferred activity; speedrunning video games can be another; learning how to cook a good curry is good too.
That’s why I recommend this book to people who don’t know what to read first. It’s a book about the experience of reading, but I think it can be about the experience of anything we do. We are naturally introspective creatures who think about our own actions. Our introspection defines us and that, I think, is the magic of what we do as a people.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
For the more adventurous, a trip into the world of fantasy is necessary. Why? Because reading involves the spark of the imagination and good writing plays on that. But we can even be better and more specific: we want not just fantasy but a fantasy that parallels our human lives and is as mundane as we are. That is where the real magic resides.
Enter Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (Amazon). Magic has become an antiquated academic subject to study in the Napoleonic era just like classic Greek philosophy. But when Mr. Norrell appears before the academics, he shocks the academic wannabes with his magic. He wants to return magic to where it belongs: with repute and an esteemed status in the ranks of the military. The stubborn old man takes on a new student, a Jonathan Strange, whose charm is deadly and overpowering; together, they take on the world and try to revolutionize the world.
And so, that’s how the story is supposed to go. There’s a lot of footnotes about magical encounters with beings that read like short stories than actual annotations and you feel the world grow on you. But magic in the world of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell pretends to be the main focus. It’s about the dynamic between the two characters, a dynamic that’s really hard to put into words. They are student and teacher, rivals in the makings, and even brothers in arms. Their relationship, strained and strange, becomes the real story and why magic — and our own selves — are divided between the old and new, the past and the future, and us and them.
That’s why we’re always in conflict. We are unable to express our own thoughts to each other and that’s why we have our own fights: on paper or with cannons. Military history and the political turmoil in the United Kingdom play with the protagonists’ perceptions of magic. It is one of the most satisfying historical fictions reads I’ve had and the dialog has a ton of wit that never forgets to return to its political intrigue and themes:
“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange.
Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never could.”
Jonathan Strange is about a thousand pages long, which may sound intimidating to a beginning reader. But I’ve always found the book to be so readable it doesn’t really matter. You want to know more about the world and the characters are so darn memorable.
It’s the kind of book that makes you realize how vast storytelling can be. In a few pages, your imagination wonders where it can go next. That’s an important feeling when we find a good piece of media that holds our attention.
For my last recommendation, I’m going with Fortune Smiles by Adam Johnson (Amazon). This time, it’s a short story collection since not everyone can read a novel. I am inspired by every short story in his collection ever since I met the guy. So this book recommendation is a bit more personal than the usual.
I was having a slight fever and would have skipped the talk if not for my teacher and my own curiosity. On the poster advertising his live reading session, Johnson looked like an average bald guy eating some ramen. If you didn’t know he won the Pulitzer Prize for his fiction on North Korea (The Orphan Master’s Son) and the National Book Prize for this short story collection, you would have thought he was a nice bloke.
Then, he came before the podium. We all sat down. I was on the far left side of the room, away from others, because I didn’t want my teacher to notice I was sweating in an air-conditioned room in the middle of winter. He looked calm and serene.
“He’s got a Buddhist zen to it,” a white friend of mine whispered to me afterwards, “like he could be a monk.”
Johnson read “Nirvana”, the first short story, aloud to a whole room. You can read this on Esquire, so you can figure if the story is suited for you. The story seems to be about a programmer and his dying wife. Also, robots and holograms. The small chattering silenced as we reached the end of the story. Tension and curiosity piqued. How in the world does a story about Nirvana the band have anything to with drones and computer science? We find it easy to follow despite the amount of research in his fiction. You learn about the technology the drones use and cool trivia about Nirvana. We try to wrap our heads about them as we listen. And when Johnson spoke the final word, we all gasped. That was a good story, we all thought.
When the Q&A session, I raised my hand asked how he was able to write something like this with so much research. He gave a long answer, which I unfortunately could not remember, but the gist was something like this: “I am interested in what I want to write about and I’ll do everything to get it.”
Johnson is a peculiar eclectic figure. His first book is, of all things, a zombie fiction. But he became a better writer when his research let him find patterns from seemingly different things and seam together into one fiction. His real success however was how he dealt with trauma in fiction.
In a Psychological Today article, Adam Johnson is interviewed about his classes on what he calls “traumatic narratives”. These narratives are fragmented, achronological, and broken. It breaks every rule on the table. Instead of characters wanting something like in a typical story, the characters are desperately avoiding something.
This strange honesty to escape permeates throughout the short story collection. In “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine”, an East German warden tries to forget about his actions imprisoning people in what he knows is a type of inhumane hell. “Interesting Facts” examines a terminally ill woman who suspects her husband is cheating on her and is planning to use one of her ideas as a short story. And “Dark Meadow” is about a reformed pedophile who is tempted by two girls — easily the most disturbing of the short story collection.
These stories surprise me because they’re all so different and yet so powerful. His endings like to give you a punch in the face. Yet, each punch makes you bleed and cough blood differently. These stories are uncomfortable to read. Yet, they are so worthwhile at the end. I’d like more people to read this special book and peer into the darkness of our hearts — and still find the light within it.
I hope you are able find a book you want to read in this post. It’s always nice to recommend several books at once.
For future posts, I’m thinking of making this series a “every two to three month” post thing with themes and ideas. Feel free to write some feedback on the comments below as I am still trying to figure the quirks out.