When things get quiet

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By Regina Hong, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio

Of late, life has been pretty quiet on the “Exciting Things” front. This was one of the livelier weekends that I’ve had, thanks to a really corpulent lizard I chased around the kitchen on Sunday (I caught it and set it free outside of the house; it was honestly the lizard world’s equivalent of a sumo wrestler).

So this blog post will be dedicated to one of the activities that has been taking up the bulk of the week on my daily commute to work: reading.  I love reading on the train, partly because it saves me from having to stare awkwardly at the window.  Really, though, I love reading for the great fun in being transported to another world before being shoved back to the gritty realities of the present.  Looking back, it’s also been a way for me to deal with those gritty realities.

One of the first books that helped shape my life was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell.  Much to the horror of my parents, it inspired me to gallop instead of run as a display of my love for all things equine. (Learning how to gallop did have its merits in physical education lessons when the teacher decided to put a creative spin on things, though.)  Styles of movement aside, Black Beauty also impressed upon me that every animal has the right to proper care and welfare.  I dreamt of becoming an equine vet and would pore over the pages of a horse encyclopedia meant for children to learn about the distinct characteristics of each breed of horse. That dream sustained me when I saw no point in slogging so hard in my studies and helped focus my goals for much of my education. Though I’m evidently not en-route to become an equine veterinarian now, I’m grateful for the dream that guided me to where I am today.

More recently, I read Jane Eyre, a novel I had been intending to read ever since I read Wide Sargasso Sea in junior college. Wide Sargasso Sea is a prequel of sorts to Jane Eyre – apparently, the proper literary term for this is “writing back”.  It’s narrated mainly from the viewpoint of Antoinette, the wife of Mr. Rochester, known as “Bertha”.

It’s a good thing that I read Wide Sargasso Sea prior to Jane Eyre.  Jean Rhys’s motivation to write Wide Sargasso Sea became even clearer as I got to know Bertha/Antoinette Mason. If I had never read the imagined narrative behind Bertha/Antoinette Mason’s descent into perceived madness, I would have brushed her off, for the language in Jane Eyre is so convincing that it blindly takes you along the narrative.  You forget to sympathize with Bertha’s plight –  torn away from her home and locked up in an attic to wait for death.  In fact, after finishing Jane Eyre, I sat in stunned silence for a moment and went into a deep mental bow of worship to its beautiful language. I finally understood the power of language to change your thoughts.

One Day by David Nicholls proved to be a good read thanks to its highly relatable protagonists. It’s been a long time since I had met characters as realistically sculpted as Emma Morley and Dexter Mayhew, with their unique bounties of flaws and strengths. The book chronicles the journey from their early twenties to their late thirties, and it feels in some ways like a preview into what adult life could be like. Call it vicarious time-travelling if you will. I particularly liked the chapters in which Emma and Dexter worried about the career paths they ought to take – in accordance with the invisible “Adult Guidebook”.

These disparate books and the impressions they left got me thinking. What is that elusive and ephemeral thing branded a “good” novel?  My take is that a good novel is not defined by the number of accolades it receives but by the various trains of thought it inspires in the minds of its readers.  The best books resonate deeply with real life events, be they deciding a future goal, dealing with peer pressure or making the really hard decision between sushi or chicken rice for dinner. Wringing a novel dry for its “deeper message” just kills the joy of reading. With that said, happy book delving!

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