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Sunday, January 11, 2009

In Love with Books (Reprint)

I spent a glorious day last week with my family at the Circular Quay in Sydney. We walked, ate and shopped, and just had a great time. From the elevated train platform were we get off, Circular Quay is an arresting site. It has a beautiful harbor, a historic bridge, pretty buildings, crowds of tourists from all over the world, street artists, lots of space and a vitality that just overwhelms.

We walked about with a great wind blowing, ferociously messing our hair and giving us a high. We had lunch at the Belgian Café, a great restaurant that serves mussels in different flavors. Then it was shopping at The Rocks, a favorite daytime market that comes alive on weekends where one can buy an assortment of goods, from food to clothes, contemporary art, knickknacks and oddities such as shark bones, petrified bugs and bottle openers with kangaroo scrotum for handles!

The best time we had though, and not surprisingly, was at a quaint bookstore where we immersed ourselves in books that were too interesting not to browse over.

Each of us picked at least one book and read aloud to each other paragraphs that tickled our fancy. Ala was totally focused on an illustration book that had pictures in lurid colors of old-style, campy 1950s-like drawings of femme fatales in different crime situations. It was too humorously dramatic not to share with everyone. I was delighted to see my kids having a great time, enjoying the books.

One of the things that I am proud of and claim responsibility for is that all my kids are readers. Very early on, even before they were one year old, I made sure that I read books to them at bedtime, or when they were in the proper mood to be quiet and still to just look at the pages and listen to words or even verses of poetry.

“Children are made readers on the laps of their parents,” said Emilie Buchwald, the literary artist. How true!

I consider a mark of a great mind the capacity not just for reading but for enjoying reading. Maya Angelou, the great American poetess, praised the “life-giving power” of books and said that every young person should develop the habit of reading. I feel exactly the same way.

As a young boy in grade school, I had books I read and reread. There was The Iliad and the Odyssey which my elder sister Tictac gave me one Christmas. I also read the Hardy Boys series and Charles Dickens. In high school, I read Aldous Huxley, Bertrand Russell, Nietzche (even if I barely understood him). I must admit, there was a snob appeal in reading stuff like this. But most of all, it was an amazing experience to open a book and gain access to the thoughts and beliefs of great men even if it took a lot of effort to read them.

Even if I love books, my reading habits are quite erratic. I go through phases in my life where I am at times a voracious reader, and at other times, one who barely reads anything. Like the ebb and flow of the tide, sometimes my mind is full of authors’ works and thoughts. At such times, I have five books under my bed that I read simultaneously. But there are times when I rarely open a book and all I read are magazines or Internet articles — and I read very little.

My last episode of hard-core reading began around 12 years ago and it has lasted for quite a while. I was completely taken over by certain authors like Neale Donald Walsch, whose every book I had read. I was so interested in his writings that I actually invited him to come to Manila and give a talk, which he did. It was quite an experience to spend time and sit down with a world-famous author and discuss his writings with him.

I also discovered Ken Wilber whose works I have simply devoured. I do not casually recommend him since he can be a really hard read. In some of his books, I can be on page 50 before I get a coherent picture of the subject matter. But if you are ready to have your mind stretched beyond its regular dimensions and never to contract again, you may be ready to start reading Ken Wilber.

I am not impressed with people whose experience in reading consists of only one writer’s works, or worse, just one book! I believe that the idea of reading is not to fill oneself with knowledge so that you become an expert or an authority at something, but to allow your mind to absorb other people’s ideas, digesting what can be nourishing, and eventually letting go of what is not useful or true. The whole idea is to learn from them, test their ideas and keep those that ring authentic while discovering more truths from life’s direct experiences.

One advice I have followed even if it is against my wishes is the one given by my Zen teacher when I started to meditate. “Don’t read anything about Zen,” she told me. Even if I reluctantly heeded her advise, I was glad that I did since the two worst things that can infect one’s Zen practice is to get lazy and not practice at all, or to intellectualize Zen instead of directly experiencing it.

In the end, books are great pleasures that are only supplementary to actual experience. They are not meant to replace experiencing life first-hand, although reading, I must admit, is a worthy experience in itself. When they are good, books give readers an “extra life,” according to Scott Corbett, the children’s book writer. Jack Paar, the ‘60s comedian and talk show host, underlined his contention in jest when he said that his mother went through World War II but came to the conclusion that it was nothing like the book!

But greater than the experience of reading books is actually writing them. When I discovered Zen, I went through an awakening so profound I felt I had to shout out what I had discovered by writing about it. The paradoxical thing was, I had written four books about something I was not allowed to read about initially!

When my second book was published, I said that I wanted to write 20 books before I die. Writing one book seemed like a fluke! Two may just be an extended run of a fever that hit me. But 20 books is a body of work! I still hope to do all of them someday.

But even greater than writing those books is knowing that there are a few people out there in the different corners of the universe who are actually reading them! I relish the idea that I am being enjoyed intimately by people I may not even know.

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