Be­yond the page

A book can be more than just a book – it is a con­nec­tion to peo­ple, places, events and me­mories.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - star2@thes­tar.com.my Sharmilla Gane­san Sharmilla Gane­san is read­ing her way through the ti­tles in 1001 Books You Must Read Be­fore You Die. Join the con­ver­sa­tion at face­book.com/ BeBookedOut or Tweet @Sharmil­laG.

BOOKS, for me, have never just been printed words on pages be­tween two cov­ers. They have al­ways some­how be­come linked to my life. Al­most ev­ery book I’ve read, even the ter­ri­ble ones, usu­ally con­nects me to some­thing be­yond just the tome in my hands – a per­son, a place, an event, a mem­ory, or even just an emo­tion.

With cer­tain books, though, that con­nec­tion grows and strength­ens un­til I find it al­most im­pos­si­ble to dis­as­so­ci­ate the two.

Read­ing Toni Mor­ri­son’s Pulitzer Prize-win­ning 1987 novel Beloved re­cently pro­vided one such ex­pe­ri­ence. I am cur­rently go­ing through a rather big change in ca­reer – which for me, also means in life – and as I’ve marched through the last few weeks with Beloved firmly in hand, it has started to be­come an in­trin­sic part of this phase. While its un­flinch­ing ex­am­i­na­tion of slav­ery af­ter the Amer­i­can civil war can often weigh on the mind, it has also been a source of strength and pro­voked much thought as I work through my own un­cer­tain­ties.

Sev­eral other books have also be­come in­deli­bly linked in my mind to spe­cific pe­ri­ods of my life, often times of change or tur­moil. Here are some of them.

The Harry Pot­ter se­ries by J.K. Rowl­ing: Mon­day was the 20th an­niver­sary of the pub­li­ca­tion of the first book in this se­ries, and I couldn’t help but re­flect on how the books came into my life al­most by ac­ci­dent but ex­actly when I needed them.

I ac­tu­ally only be­gan read­ing the books in 2000, af­ter the fourth in the se­ries (Harry Pot­ter And The Gob­let Of Fire) was pub­lished. I was 17 and my fa­ther had been di­ag­nosed with can­cer ear­lier that year, go­ing in and out of treat­ments (he passed away later the same year). My aunt, who was vis­it­ing from Canada, had bought the first four Harry Pot­ter books as a gift for a younger cousin.

I read the first two out of mild cu­rios­ity, but Harry Pot­ter And The Pris­oner Of Azk­a­ban was the one that re­ally stole my heart. And from there on, I was a true fan.

At a time when I strug­gled to hold on to any hope I could in real life, th­ese books were ev­ery­thing. They were filled with magic and ad­ven­ture yes, but more im­por­tantly, they re­minded me of the joy, love, and kind­ness I could find in the world. (See page 10 for a story on Harry Pot­ter’s 20th an­niver­sary.)

The Lit­tle Prince by An­toine de Saint-Ex­upéry: Like for most young peo­ple, mov­ing from sec­ondary school to col­lege was a rather mo­men­tous time in my life. Along with the thrill of im­pend­ing adult­hood and new free­doms, though, came the fears and in­se­cu­ri­ties of hav­ing to meet new peo­ple and make friends.

It was The Lit­tle Prince that showed me things weren’t go­ing to be so bad. Specif­i­cally, when my class­mate Mei Li told me it was one of her favourite books and that I should try read­ing it. A few pages in, I was in love with the book. And I also knew I had found a kin­dred spirit. And 16 years later, Mei Li and I are still friends.

Nev­er­where by Neil Gaiman: It was 2007 and I had just moved to Mel­bourne to do my mas­ters. I had yet to make any new friends so, feel­ing rather lonely and for­lorn, I wan­dered into a book­store op­po­site my univer­sity.

Nev­er­where was the first book that caught my eye, and I sud­denly re­mem­bered that my friend and cur­rent col­league Shiow Chin had al­ways raved about Gaiman’s writ­ing.

I picked it up on a whim, be­gan read­ing it on the train ride home, and was im­me­di­ately re­minded of how I never felt alone when I had a good book to read. A few days later, I went back to buy ev­ery Gaiman book the shop had.

The Jeeves se­ries by P.G. Wode­house: I had dipped in and out of Wode­house’s bril­liant stories of Jeeves and his em­ployer Ber­tie Wooster be­fore, but never did they help me as much as when I was go­ing through my di­vorce in 2012.

With my life in gen­eral up­heaval, I found it very dif­fi­cult to lose my­self in most books or movies – they seemed to re­quire too much emo­tional in­vest­ment from me. But some­thing about Wode­house’s sly stories and witty prose proved to be ex­actly what I needed.

Per­haps it was in the way the stories en­gaged the mind with­out nec­es­sar­ily hav­ing to dive too deep, or per­haps I just needed to learn to smile when I was on my own. Which­ever it was, those nights I whiled away with a Jeeves book and a glass (or two) of wine was when I slowly learnt to put my life back to­gether.

Half Of A Yel­low Sun by Chi­ma­manda Ngozi Adichie: I took a break from my job in 2015 to take up a one-year fel­low­ship in Wash­ing­ton DC. As I moved into an apart­ment with my two other fel­lows – Anubha from In­dia and Ioana from Ro­ma­nia – I was filled with not a small amount of anx­i­ety over how we would get along.

One day, I ca­su­ally men­tioned to them that I was read­ing Half Of A Yel­low Sun, which sparked a lively con­ver­sa­tion about Adichie, her writ­ing, and her brand of fem­i­nism. In many ways, this be­came em­blem­atic of the tight bond we forged dur­ing the rest of the year – a re­la­tion­ship built around com­mon in­ter­ests, shared ex­pe­ri­ences, dis­cus­sions, and above all, a sense of sis­ter­hood.

Now, when­ever I come across any­thing by or about Adichie, th­ese two women are the first that come to mind.

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