When I look back upon my life, one of the more significant events took place when I was in my first year in college. I had applied to and entered Snowy Hill as an electrical engineer, because electrical engineering was the big “in” thing back in the 90s. That was because I got accepted into Snowy Hill, then only later on found somebody to sponsor me. And I got sponsored by somebody who was more interested in data, algorithms and computers. Which was a great thing because I was actually more interested in that stuff than I was interested in electrical engineering. Yes, I could do circuits, and I could calculate impedence and all that shit in high school physics. But I was always more math than science.
But the thing is, I immediately switched to arts and sciences. Snowy Hill is a great, a wonderful place. Never regretted going there, and instead I only think about what could have been if I had more energy and more social skills to make the best of what life had to offer. When I go to a buffet lunch, I just want to eat and eat until I feel like throwing up, and I had the same attitude towards knowledge.
These days, though, I don’t know. I spent so much time when I was in my 20s reading, that I wonder now about where all that time has gone. I used to think that so much of my time was wasted, when I was a kid, because I didn’t read enough books before college. And that was why it was such a wonderful thing to have picked up a reading habit. But there are times when I wonder whether it was really that different from doing nothing, since reading is just doing nothing, except with a book in front of your face. At the beginning, though, it was fabulous. I had always been a thinker and a philosopher, even before the books. I used to discuss with friends about the meaning of life back when I was in secondary school, so I always liked sitting back and thinking about things.
And during the first part of my reading phase, I would read anything under the sun. After a while, I decided that there was some things that had higher priority than others. Natural science was interesting, but I was never going to be an expert in that. So even though for my “A” levels I got As for Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics (which always had one or two physics questions), and special paper distinctions for Physics and Mathematics, I was going to have to say goodbye to physics / chemistry / biology forever, although life sciences became such a vital field recently that I had to understand one or two things. I had to say goodbye to literature because I was quite possibly – and remember that I’m a former winner of playwriting prizes – no longer interested in literature. In short, it’s possible that everything that I studied for “O” and “A” levels, except for geography and mathematics was off my reading list. And even then, what I read was only vaguely related to those two subjects.
Almost everything else was game. Backbiting stories about corporations. Religion. Politics. History. Technology. Economics, banking and finance.
Yet I had to further prune down the scope of my reading. There were a few things – I really liked history but after a while I started to realize that history was a little too gossipy for me. And since I’m an engineer, I probably had to read.
In the first decade of the 20th century, it was all about books printed on pulp. And over the years I had accumulated enough of them to line up my wall. However, I’m going to be getting rid of quite a few of them and replace them with digital copies if I can lay my hands on those. I used to go to Borders (when it was still open) and Kinokuniya (when it was still in the original place) with my cheap dumbphone and snap pictures of books I found interesting. Then I would look them up and find ways to get them for cheap. You could get books cheaply in Singapore by going to book exchanges or reading them in the library, or buying and selling them online, or going to warehouse sales.
It’s a funny thing that book megastores were never a big thing for me while I was in the United States. When I was in Snowy Hill, most of the time I had to do my assigned readings, so that wasn’t that much scope for me to do anything else. I was notorious among my housemates for taking my textbooks to the bathtub, and sitting in warm water for hours, trying to read stuff. People would tease me and call me an aquatic animal, or call me Archimedes. (And it was ironic that later on I had a job which involved computing ballast). But I never hung out at megastores, even though there were quite a few indie bookstores downtown near to Snowy Hill, although Borders only opened near to Snowy Hill around the time I was about to leave. Snowy Hill had magnificent libraries and I could just walk in there and read all I want. In fact, it’s a curiosity that anybody at all can walk into Snowy Hill and just read anything they want from the library. I think it’s because we had very few tramps in Snowy Hill, and since it was so inaccessible, they could afford to do that. In the University of Mexico, you could also do that. And we sometimes had one or two tramps using the computer that was meant to be for catalogs, to surf the net, although he most probably didn’t have much time on it before he got chased off, not by librarians but by students. In many other libraries, like Harvard, Stanford and the National University of Singapore, this would not be the case. You need a student ID to go in and browse.
And by the time I got into the University of Mexico, the dual whammy of the Great Recession and the e-book revolution had started to bite. Book megastores were closing down by the droves, and they ironically suffered the same fate that they inflicted on independent bookstores 15 years earlier. Tower Records, Borders and Virgin megastore went the way of the dinosaur.
When I was in University of Mexico, I hardly visited the bookstore, because when you’re doing a master’s of engineering, you’re basically reading papers most of the time and so you will be downloading them. And since the University of Mexico had a great ebook archive, there was a minimal need to buy textbooks of my own. In fact, there were a few times I just downloaded the textbook from the library. And the nice thing is that in exchange for paying a stiff rate for tuition, I got to keep my library card for one more year after graduation. During that one year, I was just holed up with piles of books from the library crowding out my small room.
So finally, more than three years after moving to the states, I had some reason to hang out at the local Barnes and Nobles, which is what I finally did last weekend. But after a while I just got out of there. And I suppose after that I was inspired to – ahem – procure many of those recent publications. Which means for a very very long time, I probably will not be lacking in having anything interesting to do.