Studying Literature Killed My Love for Fiction

R.I.P: Fiction

Here lies Donn’s Love for Fiction.
1994 – 1998

How education hindered my education

The Early Days

My interest in reading started late in life, and in so far as I remember, the first books I read for pleasure were from the The Three Investigators series, simple fiction for — as I once was — kids. The purchase of my first book from that series came about when some book sellers were holding a sale in my primary school (Rosyth Primary), back in 1994 (when I was in primary four, aged 10).

Reading by candlelight

My friend, Meganaden (an Indian fellow I hung out with a lot, who incindentally shared the same name as one of the authors of the series, Megan), introduced me to the book. The cover of the book looked good, and thus I thought, it had to be good.

My love for fiction thus came about, and I read almost two(!) books a year from then on, all of which were part of that series. Before you break out in guffaws (two books, love for fiction), remember that I had, hitherto, never read for pleasure, and that even at Primary 1 level (aged 7 or 8), was having difficulty comprehending reading material for kindergarten-schoolers.

Taking up Literature

I started taking formal literature classes when I entered secondary school. We were given a book to read, and were told to analyse the text. I read through it once, and thought I understood it. Then came along the literature teacher.

She went through the text, line for line. Every sentence seemed connected to another. The word “black” on page 23 somehow was connected to the word “white” on page 123. The word “closed” on page 2 would be contrasted with “open” on page 189. And I am only speaking partially with tongue-in-cheek.

She came up with meanings that I did not find initially. I was stunned with how the author came up with such a book — such genius! So many hidden meanings, so many implied messages that are never explicitly spelt out. I never looked at a piece of fiction the same way ever again.

The Struggle to Find Meaning

Attemping to use this knowledge of analysing text, I picked up my old copy of The Three Investigators and started reading. I could not find anything! Was it me, or was it the author? Where were the hidden meanings? Where were the implied messages? How was this sentence connected with that one?

Fiction is hard work

Reading fiction just became too much hard work. I could not find things my literature teacher could find. I struggled. I gave up. It was my fault — perhaps I was simply not cut out to have the same great mind the author, or even my literature teacher, had.

But then again…

Regrettably, some people play the game too seriously; they are paid to read too much into things. All my life I have suffered the conflict between my love of literature and poetry and my profound allergy to most teachers of literature and “critics”. The French thinker and poet Paul Valery was surprised to listen to a commentary of his poems that found meanings that had until then escaped him (of course, it was pointed out to him that these were intended by his subconscious).

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Fooled by Randomness

…perhaps I am not alone.

Our Identity and Actions

Does who we are determine our actions, or does our actions determine who we are? Quoth Jean-Paul Sartre:

Certainly we cannot say that this man [a young student of Sartre’s who in 1940 had to choose between going to England to join the Free French Forces or staying in occupied France to care for his mother, who depended on him], in choosing to remain with his mother — that is, in taking sentiment, personal devotion and concrete charity as his moral foundations — would be making an irresponsible choice, nor could we do so if he preferred the sacrifice of going away to England. Man makes himself; he is not found ready-made; he makes himself by the choice of his morality, and he cannot but choose a morality, such is the pressure of circumstance upon him. We define man only relation to his commitments; it is therefore absurd to reproach us for irresponsibility in our choice.

Then the Letters Stopped

Once upon a time, there used to be this guy. He was in love with a girl — or maybe it was infatuation, he couldn’t say — and she, he hoped, liked him too.

Lovely Girl

Then circumstances dictated they went seperate ways. He went left, she went right. They continued exchanging letters.

Time passed, and slowly (without either of them knowing it), correspondence between them decreased in frequency.

Their last few letters stood out in that they were full of courtesies: “How do you do? Hope you are fine.”

Writing letters to each other, once deliberated over (“I have just come back from a nice cup of coffee, how sleepy I felt”), and enjoyed (“so nice to hear from you”), now seemed like a chore; rushed; to be gotten over with.

Then the letters stopped.

She Made His Day

night scene near lavender MRT

As he waited for the train, he noticed this beautiful girl sitting not too far away from him. Stealing glances at her, he thought he saw her doing the same thing to him. Picking up courage, he looked in her direction, and fixed his gaze for longer than a moment. No, she wasn’t looking at him. He sighed.

The train arrived. They both got on. Seats were plentiful, but he, hoping to aid Cupid, picked a seat directly opposite her. But he wasn’t a go-getter type, and sitting directly opposite her soon made him feel awkward. He regretted his choice.

Not knowing where to place his eyes — “better not let her think me a pervert by cathing me looking at her, especially after I picked this seat! How obvious my motives must be!” — he stared at the floor.

She was thinking about her hair. Where would she get it done? Her friends told her about this new salon — she was on her way to meet them there — but she has had her hair done by the same stylist for the last few years, could she trust this new salon?

Across from her sat him. She noticed he was staring at the floor, and wondered what he might have been thinking. But her thoughts were soon diverted to a book another passenger was reading, she tried to find out what that book was, just for fun.

Her stop came, and she got off, thinking about what her new hair might look like.

Her stop came, and she got off, and he felt like going after her. But he had errands to run. He felt blessed for having shared this commuter time with her.

She made his day.

But What Can I Do?

I should have booked out of camp much earlier yesterday, unfortunately the officer in command decided to play some games with us. He, having the highest rank, decided to keep the whole company in to, in his words, “teach all of you a lesson”.

We were peeved, upset, angry, out-raged. But what could we do? If we rebelled, he would — again, in his prophetic words — “have you all charged”.

The following poem I wrote, dedicated to all those who have suffered, or are still suffering, from dictatorial and authoritative figures, who in some way, control our lives much more than we would like.

But What Can I Do?

Time is now my currency–
Money no longer so.
Don’t pay me by the hour,
Home-bound just let me go.
–But what can I do?

I cannot do the things I want,
I cannot speak my mind;
Cannot argue with anyone–
Got to pretend everything’s fine.

Up the hill I run again,
For the sixth, no, seventh time;
But then again I’m so tired,
It could well be my hundredth climb.
–But what can I do?

I cannot do the things I want,
I cannot speak my mind;
Cannot argue with anyone–
Got to pretend everything’s fine.

He grabs me by the collar,
He scolds me vulgar names.
He calls me a f*cking faggot,
He says my d*ck is lame.
–But what can I do?

I cannot do the things I want,
I cannot speak my mind;
Cannot argue with anyone–
Got to pretend everything’s fine.

What he says I got to do,
And I cannot do otherwise.
Honestly I have to wonder,
Is it his or mine: my life?
–But what can I do?

I cannot do the things I want,
I cannot speak my mind;
Cannot argue with anyone–
Got to pretend everything’s fine.

Everything’s just fine.