Go with a smile!

Saturday, July 10, 2010


I don’t know how many of you out there know that where there used to be a big public square in front of Toa Payoh Library, there used to be a huge fountain. Fountains used to be the rage in Singapore. There used to be one in most hotel lobbies, the National Theatre had one. Sentosa had their “dancing fountains”. McRitchie reservoir had one. I think people did the sensible thing in the end and found out that most outdoor fountains are so difficult to maintain that it wasn’t worth it. They found out that in our tropical climate everything eventually got clogged up with algae.

Anyway, we were living in Toa Payoh around that time, so we went to the Toa Payoh branch library. My first few visits were before anything got computerised. Everything was done by hand. You had 4 library cards, each in the shape of a pocket. There was a pocket in the inside of the book. When you checked out a book, the librarian would take 2 small indexed cards, both stamped with the same number. One would go into the book, and you had to keep it with the book. The other one would go into your library card. There was also another card that came with the book, indicating the title, and it would also go into your library card. Those cards would be stored on a shelf, according to the number of those index cards. In the cover of the book, opposite from the pocket, there would be a sheet of paper where the librarian would stamp the due date. The index card also got stamped.

When you went back to the library to return the book, the librarian would take the index cards, and then go back to rummage for your library cards. If and when they found it, they gave you back the library card. If there was a fine, you paid it.
Needless to say, this system was very slow, and on weekends, it was not uncommon to see the queue snaking halfway to the fountain. The queues were the only way into the library, so the place was a little like a supermarket. I don’t know how they dealt with shoplifters at that point in time. Anyway this is why the library had a wide lobby entering it.

This was a rather quaint system, and I thought that this was the way it had always been since eternity. But the library was only 10 years old at that point in time. And anyway, a new system was around the corner.

The new system was a little faster: it was implemented around 20 years ago. All books had bar codes pasted on the inside, and books were checked out with laser pens. You still had librarians stamping the due dates on the date sheets of paper.

The libraries I frequented (or the ones that my parents drove me to) were Bukit Merah, Queenstown and Toa Payoh. A rather eclectic mix. But for some funny reason these are also the libraries that I frequent as well. Those libraries are the oldest ones in Singapore, and they are in the oldest housing estates. It’s very strange to have a Queenstown library in the middle of such a decaying estate, but it used to be the future of Singapore – it was Singapore’s first satellite town. And anyway, the whole place is surrounded by HDB flats, so it had a hinterland.

I wasn’t much for books in those days. I remember borrowing a lot of books – if they were kiddy books it was possible to read them before the 3 weeks were up. Otherwise it was just difficult. I didn’t have an inclination to sit down and read. Years later I found that I had ADHD and I think this was why I never got into the reading habit as a child.

There were some books that really caught my attention. When I was in primary school, and we had to do a big project, I saw a book called “Polyhedron Models”. I borrowed it, I got it zapped, and then I based my year end project based on the models in that book. It was a hit with the teachers.

Catalogs in those days – we used to have catalog cards, but I was too young to use them. Drawers and drawers and drawers of names of books, arranged in alphabetical order. It must have been a ridiculously arduous task to go locating your books during those days. Especially if you didn’t know the concept of binary search. Later on, they printed the catalogs on microfiche. You had those crazy microfiche readers, like some anachronistic crazy thing on the set of the film “Brazil”.
The libraries were in a state of decay when I went to study overseas. I remember being frustrated, as a teenager, that there were never any good books that you could find in the library. The super book shops had just opened – MPH at Stamford Road, and later on Borders at Wheellock. They had the really interesting books. Libraries were crap.

In those days I indulged myself mostly in music. Music was to be an obsession for me for around 10 years. Then 10 years ago, my obsession with books took over. To be sure, around that time, I started listening to jazz music and started losing touch with contemporary music. I was still a music lover, but in hindsight, that was the last major discovery for me, music wise.

I started thinking that music was an unhealthy obsession. During my 10 year obsession with music I was spending half of my pocket money on music. I saved almost nothing. Anything that wasn’t for my stomach was for music. I spent much of my free time scanning through CD spines in Tower or HMV.

During the next 10 years, though, my obsession was with books. My craze started in college, where I was introduced to a lot of fields of knowledge for the first time. For the first time, I was forced to read great amounts of books, and not just what your teachers photocopied for you in class. Well guys, it was during those days that I REALLY learnt how to read properly. That I REALLY mastered the English language. My GP was the subject that spoilt my perfect A record at the “A” levels. So in a way I was exaggeratedly making up for it.

It was truly unfortunate that I only cultivated a reading habit when I went to the university. If I had gone to university knowing exactly what I wanted to study, I might have made more of it.

Libraries in great universities are like temples. The prestige of the university is in some ways connected to the quality of their libraries. The libraries you found there were incredible. You had volumes upon volumes of the densest prose / academic language you could imagine. It was incredible that there was so much human knowledge lying around (but that most of it was obscure). There were literally millions of books scattered in more than 20 libraries. It seemed that almost every department had a library. (But for some reason the engineering library wasn’t very big – I don’t know why. Maybe engineers don’t really care that much for knowledge.) A physics library, a maths library, a music library, a biology library, a business school library, a law library. There were 2 main libraries. One of them were a few storeys up and a few stories underground. I heard that it was built to be strong enough to withstand a nuclear attack.

America is a place where a lot of good things comes to those who don’t really need it. I think a lot of people just kept giving gifts to unis because they were the best. But then again, I’m sure that the rest of the world needs to have such excellent libraries where you can go and find anything you want.

The libraries are not locked up like the NUS ones. Anybody who’s willing to get into my university town has access. But who wants to make the long trip there anyway?

It was a good place for studying – something I didn’t realise until 1 year in. The study room was open until 2. I heard from somebody who graduated after me that they opened the room all night just before exams.

It was great fun, sometimes, to just go to a random part of the library and look at the books. There would be books about all kinds of topics. Child psychology, sociology, anthropology of obscure tribes.

I think the crucial difference between youth and older people is how willing they are to learn. When I was there I behaved like a young man in several (but not all) aspects. I didn’t think there was limits. Economics, Government, Sociology – I wanted it all. Like the drunken man in the U2 song, I was trying to throw my arms around the world.

Later on, I think I should have been more careful. Somebody once said that your books are like your friends, and you should choose your friends carefully. There is an incredible amount of useless knowledge in my head, and ultimately you do have to make everything tie in together. I think what I learnt was that knowledge is like building material, and just because you have plenty of building material, it doesn’t mean that you have an architectural masterpiece.

I used to think that older people were not as open to learning as younger people because they thought they knew it all, were arrogant, were unwilling to change their minds. To a small extent this is true. But there are more important reasons for their declining ability to absorb new ideas. Like the loss of grey matter. Or having to contextualise new information in the light of what they already know. Or simply that their brain is crammed to choking point. So you do have to pick and choose, and figure out what it is you really want to know.

Some people wonder what’s the best form of learning: is it learning for practical purposes? Like you gain knowledge because you want to accomplish something? Or should it be something purer? Knowledge for the sake of love of knowledge, which is closer to what I had? When I was young, I thought that it was the latter. But now that I’m older, I’m starting to understand that it is hazardous to have a lot of knowledge about things, but you don’t put a lot of that knowledge in context. It’s like computer science: every piece of data in your memory must be tagged so that you know where it belongs. Once it becomes untagged, or bereft of context, it is literally garbage.

There was never enough time to do reading for leisure when I was there, so it was a hobby I took up with a vengeance when I got back. I was a dilettante about a lot of things at the point where I graduated. I needed to flesh out my knowledge. I had opened my mind to several fields of knowledge and I was curious to know what others felt about the issues that my professors dealt with. It was equally enlightening to have second opinions about a lot of things. Moral of the story: you can trust a lot of professors to open your heads, and give you a map of what the main issues in a field of study are. But you can never trust them to be objective, and neither should you trust them to have the last word.

There was a time when I just bought a lot of books from warehouse sales. I enjoyed the notion of having a lot of leisure time, and just spending it absorbing knowledge. Or maybe I just enjoyed the college lifestyle and I wanted to extend it a little longer.

At the same time, libraries had become better in Singapore. They upgraded the system, and more importantly there was this new policy that put plenty of books in the libraries. There were 2 mega bookstores in Singapore, which put a lot of the latest books in the attention of the public.

It became a habit for me: go to the bookstores and see which books catch your fancy. Photograph them with your handphone. Later on, find them, either through the library, or cheap book sales. There were books that would turn up in a warehouse sale a few years down the road. There was no hurry to get the books.

Obviously I was also buying books at a faster rate than I could read them, and soon enough, my bookshelf was full. Worse still, I tended to prioritise reading library books over my own books. The rationale is that books have a shelf life of around 5 years on a public library shelf. If you don’t read them, they’re gone. Thrown to the library sale. Whereas the books on your shelf will always be there. In the end, the books that I had at home gathering dust would just pile up. New books would come in, and old but unread books would go out through ebay. It was getting idiotic.

Well, very recently I have imposed a ban on myself going to the library and starting on new books. I would be reading books that I already owned. In fact, it was harder breaking out of my habit of reading new books than I had anticipated. It used to be a great way for me to while time away while pretending to do something useful with my life. But it’s starting to interfere with the things I really want to do with my life.

Like I said: I had 10 years of being obsessed about music and another 10 years of being obsessed about books. It’s time for me to get on to the next big craze.



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