Sunday, November 7, 2010

Children of the Atom

I am a child of the '80s.

When I was growing up, the Internet was in its infancy and was not available to Malaysians, especially swamp kids like me.

24-hour electricity came to my village when I was six. TV3 also reached the East Coast in 1986.

We were the children of the atom. I had no Internet, no TV, no electricity. So I read books. Lots of them. My favourites used to be the jokes in Reader's Digest, before moving on to their shorter articles and First Person Award stories. Articles which won the First Person Award are stories about a person you encounter in the writer's youth which left a lasting impact on him/her/it.

I progressed to reading the longer articles. Pretty soon, I was nine and reading about Dr Florey's contributions to the manufacturing of penicillin and its uses as a broad-spectrum antibiotic. As the story has it, Alexander Flemming only had a fleeting interest in the golden mold.

I read about Kunta Kinte and the heartbreaking stories of a newspaper being put to pasture in that unforgettable classic love letter of an article, Stop the Presses (For the Very Last Time).

I raided the Moving Library - a project to bring books to the rural areas. The bus usually parks 20 minutes from my house (five minutes by bike).

I read and reread most of the interesting books they had over and over again. Memorising passages was a favourite pastime. I used to be able to borrow six books every two weeks - two more than any regular member of the library.

There was no satellite TV. There was no Internet until much later.

My parents are poor folks. They can hardly afford clothes and food, much less toys. The cheapest and easiest form of entertainment was reading.

In primary school, I watched a total of one movie at the cinemas - King Peacock. It was a Hong Kong movie, as my siblings and I share a love for Hong Kong cinema.

We borrowed a lot of professional wrestling tapes, one of which featured topless women in a seedy league. Some wrestling tapes were recorded over porn. Sometimes, I'd be lucky to catch an orgasm scene at the end.

Most of it, was books. My father worked as a teacher, and he was the most hardworking. So when new library books came in, it would go through my house, where I had the chance to be the first to read them.

Primary school libraries in rural areas stock a lot of folklore and legends. I read them all. There was hardly a book in the small school library which I did not read. But that's because it was tiny. My father had accumulated more reading material than the school library.

There were three or four sets of children's encyclopedias. A collection of condensed books. Ande lots and lots of magazines. I read them all.

I had nothing else to do. I did not share the love of the wild my peers did. I don't go and kill birds. I didn't play with snakes. It's a swamp, so there were lots of those things.

It was hard, growing up. For example, I enjoyed The Book of Natural History and had memorised the names and types of dinosaurs. I ended up telling stories to the other kids. After a while, I got bored. If you haven't read or listened intently to anything, you'd lose the information and I was tired of repeating myself to classmates.

My sense of the world was influenced by a simpler, more noble time. When you knew who the bad guys were, and how you're supposed to act. Honor. Pride. Honesty. Truth. All those things from a lost age.

Those things I read when I was a kid stayed with me. Haunted me. Sometimes, when I go back, I flip a few old RD magazines or reread the encyclopedias and I would smile.

These days, I still read. I spend at least four hours a day browsing wikipedia. I had to close a browser windown just now and it had over 40 tabs.

But I miss the old books. There is a style of writing I don't find anymore. All those old articles were written with a patina of nostalgia, an old-country homeliness, a rare wit.

Articles in my adult life are mostly very standoffish and insecure. The image is more important than the feelings and emotion it evokes. And if it was written to evoke emotion, then they overdo it and choose garish ones like anger and condemnation. Righteous arrogance.

Some people complain about the taste of water or the smell of the modern air. I often miss the days when the stories were far more innocent and earnest.