A Book That Changed My Life

Published on 16 February 2016

Reading often does more than entertain — it can teach, influence and inspire.

BY PAMELA HO

In the words of American poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The mind, once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimensions.”

That’s what books do: they fill our minds with new ideas, new perspectives, new possibilities; and in the process, challenge us to see and do things differently thereafter.

The arts is a field of dreams; and artists get their inspiration from many sources. Why not books?

We speak to some arts practitioners in Singapore about the reads that resonated most with them, and how these volumes impacted their life’s work.

Alan Oei

Artistic Director, The Substation, OH! Open House

A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION
by Gustave Flaubert

I was in college in New York City. This story is set in the Springtime of the Peoples revolution of 1848. The protagonist, who has been obsessed with fame and accomplishment, misses out on the event of the century because he has locked himself up in a hotel room. He finally gets together with the object of his desire at the very time when the streets are burning and people dying.

HOW IT CHANGED ME

The entire novel is an incredible rumination on nationalism and politics. It showed me how artists can grapple with extraordinary politics through the lives of the ordinary. But in devouring this piece of 19th-century Continental literature, I spent a few months pretending to be some Parisian flâneur. Every morning, I’d start my day in a café reading before going to the museum; and in the afternoon, spend my time painting. I skipped school, which was a completely delusional thing to do; but you know, I wouldn’t change anything.

PHOTO The Substation

CHARLIE LIM

Singer-Songwriter

A GRIEF OBSERVED
by C. S. Lewis

This is a compilation of four notebooks that C. S. Lewis kept after his wife passed away. He was writing about his grieving process while struggling with his faith. I was 16 when I first picked it up, and I’ve re-read it several times over the past few years. I enjoy reading theology and philosophy every now and then, and this was a book that dealt with a lot of questions I had while growing up — not that it gave any of the answers I was looking for, though.

HOW IT CHANGED ME

I learnt there isn’t always an answer for everything. I particularly like this quote: “When I lay these questions before God, I get no answer. But rather, a special kind of ‘no answer’. It is more like a silent, certainly not uncompassionate, gaze. As though He shook His head not in refusal but waiving the question. Like, ‘Peace, child; you don’t understand.’ Can a mortal ask questions which God finds unanswerable? Quite easily, I should think. All nonsense questions are unanswerable. How many hours are there in a mile? Is yellow square or round? Probably half the questions we ask — half our great theological and metaphysical problems — are like that.”

PHOTO Aimee Han

LEE MUN WAI

Contemporary Dancer/Choreographer

A PALE VIEW OF HILLS
by Kazuo Ishiguro

I remember how simple, almost uneventful, the storyline was. There were not that many things going on, yet it was so engaging to read. I was in upper-secondary school then, and it was the first time I’d read a book written like that — so self-reflective. Encountering Ishiguro, along with other Japanese authors such as Jun’ichir Tanizaki, made me realise that one can be poetic about emptiness.

HOW IT CHANGED ME

It made me reflect on emptiness and space. When I dance or create a dance, I fill a space with movement. But the ability to consider emptiness or the idea of ‘a lack of’ is equally important when creating my work.

PHOTO Tan Ngiap Heng

ALFIAN SA’AT

Resident Playwright, W!ld Rice

THE SINGAPORE DILEMMA: THE POLITICAL AND EDUCATIONAL MARGINALITY OF THE MALAY COMMUNITY
by Lily Zubaidah Rahim

I remember borrowing a copy from the library because academic books like these were so expensive! I was 25, and it was the first time I’d ever read an analysis of the Malay community as a ‘problem minority’ that was so clear and illuminating — I experienced many epiphanies reading it.

HOW IT CHANGED ME

When you grow up Malay in Singapore, you’re often surrounded by discourse — in both the English and Malay media — that perpetuate cultural deficit theories: that Malays are not progressing because they are lazy, they are not entrepreneurial, they prefer short-term gratification over long-term rewards. Reading the book made me realise how much of these stereotypes were myths. It was an awakening for me, and I found myself taking more pride in my Malay identity. This, I think, has been reflected in my plays — in both English and Malay — from then on.

PHOTO W!ld Rice

MINFONG HO

Author

A DAUGHTER REMEMBERS
by Li Lien-Fung

My mother had always told us stories of her childhood, but they were only of happy memories. Even as a child, I sensed that she was keeping something back, something sad and unresolved. I asked her once if she had ever seen her mother and her father together, and after a long silence, she said, “No, never.” It was only in the last few years of her life, in her 80s, that she started writing her memoir. Li Lien-Fung is my mother. It was only when I helped her edit and translate the last few chapters of her book that I came to truly appreciate her complex feelings towards her parents.

HOW IT CHANGED ME

My mother died of a sudden massive stroke just three months before the book was launched, so we never had the chance to talk at length about the book. I wish I could have said to her, “Ma, I think you were a good daughter. You did the best you possibly could, for both your parents. I understand you so much better now.”

SOM SAID

Founder, Sri Warisan Som Said Performing Arts Ltd

PENGANTAR ETNOMUSIKOLOGI DAN TARIAN MELAYU
by Tengku Lukman Sinar, S H

Translated from Malay, the title reads: An Introduction to Ethnomusicology and Malay Dance. I read this book back in 1990 when it was first published. It provided me with all the information I needed to move forward confidently, because much of what I know, do and teach in traditional Malay dance, I had inherited through oral tradition.

HOW IT CHANGED ME

I don’t think any book has changed my life in the way dance has changed my life. Nevertheless, I feel this book made me a better person and served as a reference for me, complementing my experience in Malay dance, as both a dancer and choreographer.

DR GAURI KRISHNAN

Director, Fellowship & Research, Culture Academy (former Centre Manager, Indian Heritage Centre)

HOW INDIA CLOTHED THE WORLD: THE WORLD OF SOUTH ASIAN TEXTILES
1500-1850 Edited by Giorgio Riello & Tirthankar Roy

I read this book in 2009, when I was at the threshold of my professional journey as a senior curator of South Asian art at the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM). I had decided to commit my time to the study of a major collection of Indian trade textiles from the ACM, and this book made steering into the Indian Ocean world of trade textiles easily navigable. The book helped me see how the global economy impacts people’s lives at micro levels in Singapore and all over the world. Then a realisation dawned — we are all connected.

HOW IT CHANGED ME

This book took me out of my comfort zone, beyond art history or anthropology, and allowed me to enter into the economic history connected with the life of an art object. It opened my eyes to the wealth of knowledge surrounding Indian trade cloths, and connected many dots for me. It changed my perception of the world, of art and globalisation.

PHOTO Katya Krishnan

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