Reading English novels as a child, I used to wonder what scones tasted like. They sounded especially scrumptious because I had never tried them—a deprivation relieved only when a teacher once brought me and a few others to Goodwood Park Hotel for high tea. Like my taste for scones, most of my desires and expectations were acquired through books. As vehicles of vicarious experience, books offer their own enchanting portals of discovery, facilitating access to new imaginative realities. Like any ardent reader, I have deeply relished the satisfying—occasionally even thrilling—experience of literary reading. This delight of reading stems less from a desire for some gratuitous escapist fantasy than a quest to uncover what J. Hillis Miller describes in On Literature as a ‘metaworld’ or ‘hyper-reality’. Literature is a kind of complementary world, which not only lends an enlarged perspective and a greater sense of meaning to quotidian reality, but which may be experienced even more intensely than everyday life itself. A brief recount of my own reading history instantiates this point. While it seems a tad narcissistic to dwell at length on the books that have attracted my attention, it is nevertheless instructive to regard my reading biography as a sample, a case-in-point which illustrates how the relations between reader, text and world can be explored, negotiated, and inextricably linked.
My earliest memories of texts revolved around picture books and comics (The Berenstain Bears, Calvin and Hobbes, Asterix and Obelix), which often depicted characters and situations so distant from my mundane HDB Singaporean childhood in the 1980s-90s that they ignited significant curiosity on my part (no tree-houses, snowball fights, or Roman gladiator fights here!). Next were the staples of children’s literature: Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, and eventually J.K. Rowling, whose Harry Potter series would sustain my lifelong fascination (reading all seven books, watching the films, and visiting ‘Platform 9 ¾’ at King’s Cross Station in London). Rowling’s labyrinthine universe of mesmerizing wizardry and forbidden forests occupied a permanent place in my imagination, but the deepest spell that the books cast was a lifelong love for reading. Also beneath these narratives of the occult were vital ethical insights: the importance of friendship and loyalty, the power of free choice, and the value of courage and persistence.
By secondary school, I had (in spite of myself) become a voracious reader. The gratification of reading came not from school literary texts like Animal Farm, The Outsiders, or Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry but from humorous works like the veterinary tales of James Herriot, and the Jeeves & Wooster stories of P.G. Wodehouse. Performing in school productions such as stage adaptations of Ho Minfong’s Sing to the Dawn further reinforced my conviction that texts need to be brought to life; they demand to be animated with the energy and dynamism of the spoken word. In junior college, I became genuinely passionate about the literary texts taught, including John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, George Eliot’s Silas Marner, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, amongst others. I was experiencing what Gabriele Schwab describes as the ‘malleability’ and ‘plasticity’ of the reader’s boundaries: the dividing line between self and text becomes indistinct when the reader becomes fully immersed in the world depicted. As Kingston’s narrator declares, ‘I learned to make my mind large, as the universe is large, so that there is room for paradoxes.’
When I was summoned for National Service, I thought that the incompatibility between the deadening, mind-numbing routines of the military and the creative domain of the aesthetic imagination would surely kill off my literary interests. After all, even Boey Kim Cheng could not read any poetry during his two-and-a-half-years, because—as he reflects in a 2008 essay published in QLRS about his love of Keats—the utter drudgery and harshness of camp life impaired his appetite for poetry, which would only return upon his discharge from the army (curiously, some of the first poems he wrote were about military routines, ostensibly one of the most peculiar of poetic subjects). But it was quite the contrary for me; in fact I think my love of poetry stemmed precisely from those NS days. I remember reciting Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If’ to myself amidst the rapid rattle of bullets at the firing range, and even performing William Cullen Bryant’s ‘Thanatopsis’ to my bemused camp-mates during the (interminably boring) lull periods. The time available for reading and thinking meant that I could slowly digest the works of some all-time favourites like Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose religious seriousness combines with a penchant for strange speech accents and distinctive metrical forms. If Edward Hirsch is right in declaring that poems are like a message in a bottle, released with little hope of a recipient but destined for the eyes of those who read them, I was moved by the hope of an intimate connection, a unique contract shared between author and reader in a shared process of meaning-making.
This sense of connectedness only deepened—and with a wider range of authors—during my time as an undergraduate. I had actually been a philosophy major before I switched to literature, and I credit my studies in philosophy for challenging and overturning some of my most deep-seated assumptions about human subjectivity. Hume, for instance, in his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, offers striking perspectives about the limitations of human understanding and the strengths of scepticism, while Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, presents a profound challenge to any easy dichotomy between rationalism and empiricism with his doctrine of transcendental idealism. When I turned my focus to literature, the depth and rigour of the texts were just as intense. With the plethora of literary works ranging from the Romantics to the Victorians, from the modernists to the post-modernists, I was humbled by the sheer wealth of texts to which I had previously been hardly acquainted with.
One personal insight was that despite my fondness for Chaucer, Shakespeare and Marlowe, my literary tastes are largely modern and contemporary. Some of the most remarkable and original novels that I encountered include Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, and J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. All these novels chart their own aesthetic territory with humour and pathos, exploring sensitive themes with resolute distinctiveness. As for drama, Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia was particularly impressive, with its strong plot, convincing characterization, and subtle intellectual engagement. In terms of poetry, the works of Geoffrey Hill—Professor of Poetry at Oxford—proved to be most compelling, laden with an unrivalled density of meaning while maintaining a register that is often (in Milton’s words) ‘simple, sensuous and passionate’.
The years since my college days have, I realize, been one long process of reading—not just reading texts, but specifically reading texts of cities, and reading cities as texts. When in Dublin for half a year as part of a student exchange programme, I once held my copy of Ulysses in hand as I re-enacted Leopold Bloom’s journey around the Irish capital, visiting the same sites that Bloom did, like Davy Byrne’s pub and the National Library of Ireland. Visiting Paris, I read Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen (in translation), in addition to Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual, an ingenious imaginative recreation of an entire Parisian apartment block. While pursuing my masters in London, I (re)visited streets that Dickens had popularized in his novels, besides contemplating the reflections of Ford Madox Ford about the city in The Soul of London. Such instances of relating texts to world have affirmed my belief that the process of reading is enhanced by lived experience, in the sense that literary works function as what Cristina Vischer Bruns describes as ‘transitional objects’—a valuable means of inhabiting texts’ alternative worlds which often coincide or coalesce with actual living spaces. One city that deserves attention is, of course, Singapore itself. Ironically, it was only when I was in London that I came to read Singaporean texts closely: not just the works of old favourites like Arthur Yap but also Alfian Sa’at and Wena Poon, as well as emerging talents like Jerrold Yam. All these writers have prompted my renewed appreciation for the city as text—the city occupies a rich and complex terrain where historical and cultural influences intersect with political discourses, often in ways that fuel contestations of meaning.
Naturally, any attempt at a reading biography cannot pretend to exhaustiveness. But it does provide a glimpse into the kinds of texts which can trigger and sustain the reader’s intense emotional engagement, which—as Bruns points out—is not a distraction from the task of critical analysis but a vital component of textual study and literary reading. The experience of such engagement also cannot be universally assumed for all readers. While I might find Geoffrey Hill’s poems brimming with luminous intensity, I sympathize with readers who cannot help but find his work to be eccentric and perplexing. (Likewise, despite my best efforts, I find it immeasurably difficult to develop a liking for the Twilight series.) Instead, as teachers, we can encourage students to be more reflective about their own immersive reading experiences. By establishing a relevant correlation between the world of the text and the world of students, the process of meaning-making can be activated to inspire students’ enthusiasm for reading and learning.
And perhaps, I can introduce my students in future to good old English scones.