By A. Hamid Saifuddin
I recall vividly about reading and books in particular. It was 1996 and we were inches away from the dreaded (and confusing) end-of-the-year exam, UPSR. Sekolah Sri Subang Jaya 2 (SSJ) had quite the glowing academic reputation - being the Sekolah Harapan Negara twice during my days at the school.
As part of inculcating interest in reading among us 12-year-olds, our strict disciplinarian, Encik Zul (God bless his soul) made it compulsory for ALL of us to be seen with a book accompanying us everywhere during recess time (OR ELSE!).
As much as we found this laughable (trust me, Subang Jaya kids had it different), we had us like a teddy bear - any printed material with us; from Archie comics, Sweet Valley's, Fear Street's to Goosebumps. One even deigned to carry the legendary brown Buku Latihan (exercise book) - just because!
It was truly a sight to behold. A flock would bring their textbooks, a school would carry their fictions and a clowder would hold a random magazine that they knew nothing of. Should an outsider pop in randomly, they would have thought that we were the nation's most studious bunch and no less. One would even go as far as thinking that we would all score straight A's in the impending exam! (Sadly, yours truly wasn't one of them).
Learning this, Encik Zul decided that all works of fiction were banned during recess and everyone to have with them ONLY academic books (a glare especially so to those who carried with them the exercise books especially). Exasperated, being an impressionable Twelve's that we were, we obliged, begrudgingly so. There were many hard talks in our bus back home (this assemblage of neighbourhood kids were our first experience of Model United Nations no less), as we compared notes with our friends from neighbouring schools if the same rules were implemented at theirs. Their confused looks and joker grins were enough to confirm that we were the lab rats in this experiment.
This time around, somehow it worked. During recess, after downing our food, we would spend the spare minutes before the bell flipping pages nonchalantly. In between pre-teen politics and dramas, we subconsciously slipped in the how-to's for a subject. I found out there and then that if our friend orally told us of a topic that we don't understand, it rang much better as opposed to what the teacher said (sometimes, that is) in class. So true that till this day, I can differentiate the use of Di and Ke in a sentence. Pretty mind-blowing for a 12-year-old.
Fast forward to today, every time I read an article or if someone told me that young Malaysians don't read, I would scoff at the thought. Trust me when I say this - they DO read. It's just the matter of the platform used and what genre they are into. Did you know, young people today use books as their Instagram aesthetics? Sure, it is now used as a prop, but trust and believe that they do flip through the pages and eventually read a prose or two. With social media contents changed by nanoseconds, it is only normal for books (or some would say "narrative trapped in paragraphs'') to always take the backseat.
As self-proclaimed ferocious reader and all things popular culture - the best period in time about books in Malaysia and globally were when all bibliophiles took sides on which book were the ultimate; Team Potter vs. Team Twilight (we don't have the space for Team Edward vs Team Jacob, but trust that post will come soon enough). I owned both books and enjoyed them so much so that I managed, in a lifetime of mine, to convert a few unsuspecting friends into a diehard fan.
Revival of reading
For the life of me, I cannot count my stars enough to have found book/reading groups online. Specifically that of the Kuala Lumpur Book Appreciation Club (KLBAC) and Fans of Folio Society, respectively. As an unnatural book hoarder, I found solace in seeing people of my interest ilk, share their current purchase, or simply upload a photo of them hugging a book they once dreamed of and managed to own a copy. Judging from their profile photos and the way some would express things, they are young people, massive in number, who still read and enjoy the company of thumbing through pages or simply flipping it sideways on their Kindle. When I wrote that I am a book shy away (the ever elusive Grey book!) to complete the 13 Rainbow Fairy books commissioned by Folio Society - comments of well-wishers and links to the book flow like a waterfall - from young and elder readers alike. That act alone settled the bill for my imaginary therapy bills.
Doubts have I none that there is a revival of reading amongst the Malaysian young (and old), if only we could celebrate them more by slowly making it cool again - not by way of force, but naturally giving them space, time and desire to do so.
In this pandemic, sometimes the company we should consider enjoying are the thoughts of us with a good book, drowned in thoughts of others.
A. Hamid Saifuddin is an educator/researcher in the Public Relations Department of the Faculty of Communication & Media Studies at Universiti Teknologi MARA, Shah Alam.