and here we are again
the phone is in his hand

searching

for connections

who knows what he’s thinking
(perhaps hiding)
from lack of words, the

yawning gulf
in the middle of
the lunch table

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Critical Reading: Ever Wish You Could Stop?

Remember the delicious thrill of students, right before the start of the school hols.? Months of blissful nothing lying ahead; and while for others this meant Cartoon Network and video games (or, for many of us poor Singaporean kids, more tuition), for me it was the delightful prospect of weeks spent lounging about like a fat cat on the sofa with my whiskers getting all tangled up in books. Whenever school hols started Dad would drive us all to the library, from which we’d troop back hours later, dragging a huge bag of books between us. Had to be a canvas bag, because plastic always broke; what with sixteen books each for me and my sister, and sometimes more (we’d purloined our grandparents’ cards too so we could borrow extra books). So much time then, and so much to read! I’d plunge into the books with a child’s abandon, yielding completely to the magic of the moment.

Then came Literature. The academic discipline. And with it came timelines and deadlines. Texts had to be dissected, some forced down our throats (Herland, for example, was a piece of total propaganda that bored me to tears). Teachers would drone on, and the notes and homework they flooded us with together with their general lack of help and enthusiasm often desiccated great works in the process, which I would only later learn to enjoy. Critical reading, they called it. With the encounter of better teachers, I learnt, gradually, to not only do it but also love it for its fruits. In uni, however, this had to be done fast.

My (rarely achieved) goal was about four books a week, some of them as thick and tedious as Tristram Shandy. In addition to my curriculum texts, I was determined to keep up with my proliferating shelf of recreational reading books. But my overloaded schedule meant that every second of free time had to count. Social life was the first thing to go. Next went sleep; I had to seize not just the day but also the night. If Balzac drank 50 cups of coffee a day, another shot for me wouldn’t hurt …

But something else left me, too. The innocent pleasure of absorption that I’d had as a child, the joyous thirst for story with its anticipation of fulfilment–all that had disappeared, though in my hectic life I was barely conscious of it. I plodded on. There was no time to be enchanted, no time to enjoy the show; I had to head straight backstage to study the pulleys and levers, the props and the puppet strings. Attempts at succumbing to the author’s spell met with varying degrees of failure, as every moment in the journey was shadowed by the next essay or review waiting to be hammered out. Books were rifled through rather than savoured; like many other moderately diligent students I skimmed over whole forests, swooping in occasionally with the all-too-easy command+F to reap it for technicalities, messages, cultural resonances. Secondary sources became unhealthy acquaintances; the noise of my search helicopter drowned out the whisper of the leaves.

Hammered by the driving curse of carpe diem I Googled speed-reading courses, trying to turn my brain into some kind of super-sponge, wishing I could download whole libraries into it like learning kungfu in The Matrix. I was greedy; I wanted it all. Books piled up, in my Kindle and in my shelves, read once and slotted in neatly again–I’ll come back, I promised them, next month, or the month after–but there were always more new fields to plough. When I could mark another book as ‘Read’ I’d feel a trivial, and perhaps rather perverse, sense of satisfaction.

I had, of course, other reasons to read: for wisdom and insight, for admiration of an author’s skill, for pleasure in a language exquisitely wrought. Nevertheless I could never read again with the same absorption I’d had as a child, when disbelief was not so much willingly as automatically suspended because the possibility of not doing so simply never occured to me.

This is what J. Harris Miller calls the ‘aporia of reading‘. As a child I read speedily, and even took pride at how fast I read, flying through plot after plot without thought for the author’s craft; as an adult I still read quickly, (well at least I try to, though careful reading always slows things down), mining texts for both craft and content, but no longer dragged hook, line and sinker into the author’s painted world. Miller insists, despite their apparent contradiction, that we must perform both ways of reading simultaneously.

Is this even possible? Perhaps some of you have no problem with this, but it seems to me that every time I think about the author’s technique I am jerked out of the story. It’s with a different sense of enjoyment that I read now, and although some may say the development of the critical faculty is always good, I can’t help but miss the times when I could just drift off on the words of a book, and remain carried by its currents of dream without looking down to see how the propellers work.

Lately, though, I’m finding more and more that slow reading brings me close to a resolution of sorts. Reading slowly, I can luxuriate in the intricacy of the crafted spell, and even let it seduce me a little, because the time taken to savour it allows me also to willingly or actively yield myself to its power. Good reading, Miller says, demands slow reading. He’s referring specifically to critical reading here, the necessity of being ‘suspicious at every turn’; but I think that this isn’t wholly incompatible with the first, unsuspicious way of reading. We may compare this with slow food: eating slowly when we’re hungry would prolong hunger and perhaps delay gratification, but ultimately we get to satiate our appetites and enjoy the finer details of taste, texture and culture that gobbling would leave out. In the same way, slow reading may interfere with the pace of, say, a climactic scene in an Agatha Christie novel, but may enable us to gain the two key, distinct experiences of a text–absorption into a world and enjoyment of the author’s craft–just a split second short of simultaneity.

Still, it’s an imperfect solution to the reading aporia. Perhaps every book should be read at least twice–once for the credulous reading, and once again for the critical one. What do you think?

Kindling A Passion For Print: On the E-book vs. Print Book War

On the surface of things, liking print books makes no sense.

Recently, a friend saw my shelves and floor strewn all over with books and accused me of being a hipster. “Who buys physical books anymore?” he scoffed. And he went on to wax lyrical on the comparative merits of the Kindle, which I won’t get into here as that topic has already been covered in-depth by many. Unless you’re technologically challenged, my friend insists, or you live under a rock, there’s no good reason for a real book lover to continue buying books in print. Claims about the ‘feel’ of a physical book, often glossed over as something ‘indescribable,’ are founded on irrational sentiments such as nostalgia, which ought not to have an impact on a real book lover’s choice of book format. After all, if I really loved books, my decision would be based on practical considerations; so anything that allows me to read more often and widely would be the winner. A Kindle allows ease of travel, greater access to more books at cheaper prices, word search functions, and it isn’t even any worse for your eyes than a book-book is. So, my friend concludes, the only reason why anyone would to buy book-books is that they want to look good–whether to others or just themselves.

I must say I agree with him on the merits of the Kindle–I don’t go anywhere without mine–but I wouldn’t dismiss physical books entirely. When studying complex subjects or texts that require multiple cross-references, it helps to lay out print versions of books and essays all around me. I work on the floor, Japanese-style, so I have a whole circle of space around me for me to get a bird’s eye view of my research, draw links between different sources, and jot down notes. Mapping ideas out physically helps me remember them better than just highlighting them in an e-book. And when I want to recall something I read, in a physical book I’d remember roughly where to flip to; whereas if I can’t remember any keywords, the Kindle’s search function would be useless . Of course, the search function is also invaluable in research, so sometimes I would get both the print and electronic versions of the same text.

But I’ve always felt, vaguely, that when reading physical books my brain feels sharper, more focused, and I can concentrate for longer periods of time. With my Kindle I seem to need lots more discipline. I thought this feeling was purely psychological, so I did some quick Googling and found that it’s actually backed by evidence: apparently, a study done by researches in Norway’s Stavanger University found that readers using a Kindle fared significantly worse than paperback readers at recalling when events occured in a mystery story. In immersion, empathy and other emotional responses, though, Kindle fans would be glad to know that both Kindle and paper readers performed equally.

FullSizeRender
My Kindle’s my workhorse but reading on it made me appreciate printed texts more.

Well, this is only one study. Would future generations fare better on Kindle if that’s what they grow up with and are used to? I don’t know, but it does help explain why reading texts the old fashioned way feels better to me, especially when it comes to non-fiction. There’s a flow to it that’s supported by the tactile feel of flipping pages, the subconscious awareness of a sheaf of paper rising and falling from one hand to another as you course through the novel. A Kindle, for all its provision of greater mobility, doesn’t have seem to allow you this same ease of travel, because its hardware remains static and its screen fragments the narrative into framed and uniform pages that seem disjointed from one another rather than parts of an organic whole.

Besides, I’ve always liked the idea of passing down physical books. I love my second-hand novels, scribbled with the annotations of strangers, some of them so old they have become ghosts, genius spirits whose names I don’t know but who share my heart and whose voices I hear whispering through these yellowed, dog-eared pages. Every print book collects in its physical form its own history of readership, and so abounds with its own mystery as it evokes in one a sense of worlds and minds beyond one’s own. It’s a vague, delicious sense of transcending space and time. An e-book is only ever yours, replicated in binary code through a multitude of devices, easily replaceable if burnt; and with the current turnover rate for electronics, I won’t be surprised if my great-grandchildren aren’t using Kindles any more.

“So,” you ask me, “should I get a Kindle?” Well, it depends on how you read. Do you devour your books, or savour them? I like to do both, so while I won’t be throwing out my Kindle any time soon, I’ll definitely still be haunting my local of bookstores and libraries, on pain of being called a hipster. Sadly, though, this pool seems to be drying up far too quickly.

Versatile Blogger Award

Yay, received my first award–thanks, Jade! I didn’t even know such things existed, but it seems a good way to interact with a lovely community of writers, so I’m in. 🙂

According to the rules, I’ve got to pass this award on to 10 other bloggers, and they have to have excellent blogs. Nominated bloggers must post seven things about themselves. Hey, if you’re bored, you could even write it in verse, too. 🙂

I like coffee and poetry. Nothing special.
A dark roast, with a dash of milk and silent
music, by a clear sunlit window.

I’d like to say I’m not a hipster,
but I suppose my penchant for this fashion
of things to like automatically
shoves me in that box. Along with
my use of ‘penchant,’ a pretty ornamentation
some may deem useless, but which I will
not have replaced with any other word
because it tinkles, bell-like, in my ears
and glitters, silver and jade, in this crate–

this dark, cluttered crate
through which I wade,
straining for glimpses of myself.

In this crate things real and fake get muddled.
There’s coffee and poetry, as I’ve said,
but also plain rice and pumpkin,
what I had for breakfast and other
mundane things and sin, sin, sin
I could have chosen instead
but I picked these two, coffee and poetry,
because they seemed safe enough,
familiar points on tried, charted territory.

I could have written of love, my love,
my golden and broken heart, but I’m afraid–
it’s probably tarnished, trapped in too much hate.

In my box–
whatever box it is–
there are layers of evil I will not list.
Still, there’s hope. It lies
at the bottom. The end of this abyss.

Face and mask
mask each other,
betray each other,
become each other.

I guess it doesn’t matter.
The crate, anyway, is not secure.
Its shape shifts, it sags, its store

changes constantly, warped
with impurities pouring
in and out of its pores,

its face pockmarked with wormholes,
fault lines and pitfalls of fear,

or tunnels, or clear
sunlit windows,
through which souls

may sleep,
or seep.

Okay, so I kind of got carried away, but there’re about 7 things put together in the above … thing that looks like a poem.

And now I’m going to pass on this award to …

  1. Kat Myrman
  2. Daniel Swearingen
  3. Dees Daily Journal
  4. Merlina Padma
  5. Heather
  6. Sue Vincent
  7. Jane Dougherty
  8. Anthony Wilson
  9. George Szirtes
  10. John Field

I’ve come across some great poetry / poetic prose in these blogs. No obligations to participate if you don’t want to though. 🙂

Anyone else can participate too; I’m always happy to know more people.  🙃

Island

her hand in mine
little fish slipping
into coarse sand of my palm

sun-tanned palms
caught in golden net
sand-cast duet
shored against time

in relentlessly flowing brook
laced leaves
slowly tear. 

This is a response to a dVerse prompt on Impressionism.

Was thinking of my sister, and remembering when we were younger. Kind of miss her.

Missing Sydney’s Macchiatos

Order a macchiato from any café in Singapore or Thailand and 9 times out of 10 you will be met with masked panic. You mean the small one, right, the barista would ask, because some people –having been misled by Starbucks’ caramel macchiato, I suppose –really mean a different thing. Yes, I’d say, confirming their worst fear; but I’d smile nicely at them to put them at ease, so that hopefully a calm hand and heart would make for milk well-foamed and poured, even if it doesn’t come with a cute mini-rosetta, an added bonus which I’d long learned not to expect.

So what’s a macchiato? To avoid confusion I’d better explain: while Starbucks’ macchiato is steamed milk ‘marked’ with an espresso shot, the macchiato proper is an espresso shot marked with a dollop of cream (but I’d like my latte art, too, please!). If I’m lucky the barista would with a quick tilt or flick of the wrist pour just a trace of that lovely steamed milk into my espresso shot. That little dash of steamed milk, the kind that gives lattes its especially smooth and velvety texture, would sink and blend with the thick burnt umber of the coffee below, leaving on top a little round circle of foam, which is the ‘mark’ or ‘stain’ that gives the macchiato its name. Only a whisper of that milky sweetness is needed, to smooth the sharp or bitter edges of the espresso (a macchiato tastes best, to me, with a dark roast). Neither as bitter nor as thin as the long black, the macchiato retains the thick, natural sweetness of the espresso while keeping just enough of its arresting intensity, that acid bite which, while lost with the mellower, milk-rich lattes and cappuccinos, gives the macchiato just that edge of excitement it needs to seduce.

But if I am not so lucky, the barista, too afraid perhaps to give the dreaded pour a try, would use a spoon to scoop the steamed milk into the coffee. When that happens only the foam ends up in the cup, the white drop floating like a bewildered island lost atop the dark elixir with which it cannot blend. And when the coffee is drunk, more espresso than macchiato, the lonely dollop of foam would remain, stuck and bubbling sadly, at the bottom of the cup –awaiting its sad fate in the rubbish bin.

So if the perfect macchiato is so hard to come by, you may ask, why order it at all?

Yeah. I don’t. At least not here. These days I’ve taken to ordering a piccolo, double shot, which some places call the cortado, and other places like Costa Coffee call it the corto. I’ve grown to like this too, and it seems more baristas here get this right. But it’s so confusing, all these fancy terms. No one knows what anything is anymore. Really, someone should publish a definitive list of terms and cafés should stop coming up with pretentious names to make us think your shit is better than it is.