Book Drunk


Shen Zhou. “Poet on the Mountaintop.”

“Read ten thousand books and walk ten thousand miles,” so says a literati in Ming dynasty China, whose philosophy in painting greatly influenced seventeenth century tastes and artistic development in the realms of Chinese scroll painting. His name is Dong Qichang.

As staggering as it may sound, ten thousand books is not an impossibility to achieve, although it is quite a revolting number to even digest. It does make one wonder if any of mankind’s rarest had proudly made it to that mark. Ten bleeding thousand! It would not be a surprise if editors, copywriters, book critics, reviewers, and librarians had managed to accomplish precisely that much. But I would have to imagine them to be pensioner nonagenarians nowadays devoted completely and utterly to reading books all their live-long lives until the very end of their days.

Audrey Hepburn (ca. 1950s)

Audrey Hepburn (ca. 1950s)

In my over three wonderful decades on this planet, I have only managed to read over 800 assorted books (pardon me for bragging) from anthologies, short story compilations, biographies, war memoirs, a great collection of classics, contemporary lit, young adult, children’s lit, theology, foreign novels, plays, sagas, series, non fiction, and the occasional stinkers, etc. (journals, magazines, and news articles, etc., not included).

To many, that is a book too many; more books than they could ever read in their lifetimes. It saddens me (and at times, secretly disappoints me) that reading is NOT something many people do leisurely. If anything, it is treated like a chore; a tedium best avoided like a plague. I understand how it can be immensely challenging to get through the texts page after page, or if they’re lucky (or persistent), chapter after chapter. But only practice can make one better at reading, and it is through reading that one improves one’s speed, spelling, grammar, comprehension, and critical thinking skills. To my mind, a person who does not enjoy reading … well, not only do they not have very much in common with me, but it puts me under the impression that they may be very limited indeed in their capacity to creatively imagine, to wonder with child-like fervor, to open their minds to sound reason, to create and innovate either visually or orally narratives about the great big world and the universe it is in. Apart from that, it makes me wonder if they love learning at all.

Audrey Hepburn

Audrey Hepburn

A co-teacher once told me, “It is better for man to read as many books as he can, rather than read one dangerous book.” It’s not accurately what he said, and I’m sure he was quoting from somebody else, but the thought went along those lines. There is much truth in what he said, and I can think of several people group, whose great admiration and devotion to one single book and the rejection of many others had made fanatics out of them all; whose radicalism only brought destruction amongst their neighbors and even amongst their very own. It is a terrible and tragic thing when one book — taken literally without scrutiny or scholarly analysis or references to contextual bases — dictates the general thinking of a nation, much to the endangerment of the rest of the world.

But as for me — like many a great minds who sought truth and beauty and all that pedantry (not that I belong to those ‘great minds’ I just spoke of, but I do admire them tremendously) — reading is not just a pastime, it is an escape. It is a portal to another world altogether completely different from my own; a world I may not always like, but which may or may not coincide with my own reality; a world that have been lived or has yet to be lived. It is the time machine to the distant pasts or the near futures. For me, it means taking over 800 inexpensive, uncensored adventures and immigration-free travels, and living more than 800 variegated and excitingly anthropomorphic, human, or extra-terrestrial lives.

So when I was told that Burma is a great reading country, I was very impressed and amazed to learn that such a reader haven exists in Asia! I had never taken an interest in that country before, but with what I’ve heard of their population and its favorite pastime — oh, the tales I have been told of kiosks filled with reading materials that people flock to, of children reading in the streets, and the masses hungry for words — I became quite keen to witness it for myself. I look about me here in Cambodia and see the complete polar opposite: not a single reader in sight (expats aside)! It is a tsk-tsking thing indeed.

Dong Qichang was not, of course, endorsing total immersion of one’s life solely to the activity of reading. No. That would be an immense waste of a perfectly beautiful life, wouldn’t it? Wise words from wise men like him must be taken figuratively. There is more to life than reading (but it is one we must never neglect anyhow). If anything, Dong Qichang was encouraging ‘learning’ and the utilization of accumulated wealth of knowledge and life experiences to the advancement of… well, whatever it is needing advancement: be it self-expression, Art, Science, the nation and its interests, cultural identity, spirituality, and so on and so forth. The mere fact that he chose the number by the staggering ten thousands over the puny hundreds alludes to his belief that learning — just like reading 10,000 books — is for life.

For something as simple as that, Dong Qichang certainly went the poetic route to convey his thoughts on the one essential thing all literati in his generation were encouraged to do and aim for.

Yes, Life is sure enough a great teacher and we learn from it and from a myriad of our mistakes, yet there is still so much more to be said about learning from other people’s experiences, and if we are any wiser, we will heed them; looking back into the past and learning from its lessons.

And so we read.

“All I have learned, I learned from books,” says Abraham Lincoln.

“Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young,” insisted Henry Ford.

“I read my eyes out and can’t read half enough…the more one reads the more one sees we have to read,” John Adams wrote his wife, and finally,   “Learning never exhausts the mind.”

Hear, hear, Signor Da Vinci!


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