Accessible books . . .

Growing up, Mr. Han says he was given wide latitude by his parents. . . His family’s home was packed with literature, he said, and his father made sure to put the good stuff — books published before the Communist revolution — low enough for an 8-year-old to reach. “He put all the poorly written books published after the founding of the People’s Republic of China high enough so I couldn’t reach it,” Mr. Han said.

The above is an excerpt from a New York Times article/interview with Chinese novelist/race-car driver(!), Han Han.

I just thought it was really funny but telling; his dad was smart! I also thought about how my dad’s voracious appetite for reading, and his utter lack of concern/oversight over my reading choices when I was a kid has been a powerful factor in shaping the way I read today, and by extension, shaping who I am today. For a household of three, we subscribed to four newspapers: English, Chinese and Thai newspapers in the morning, and then the afternoon tabloid-sized English paper, the Bangkok World, until it went defunct. On top of that, Dad brought home (the subscriptions were sent to his office) Time, Newsweek, and other Asian English-language weekly newsmagazines, like the Far East Economic Review, Asiaweek, etc. On top of that, Dad liked to buy books on history and political figures. In parallel, he bought books and magazines in Chinese, but I could only browse through them for the pictures.

Not all reading material in our house was high-brow edification. There were trashy novels lying around, traded or left from uncles and aunts who were moving about, frequently flying on business trips: Harold Robbins, Sidney Sheldon; my dad had a preference for Danielle Steel and Erich Segal. To this day, I don’t think my parents know that I learnt about the mechanics of coitus from a Harold Robbins novel waay before I was in middle school.

I had access to everything, and being an only child, the default entertainment after school was to browse all the English newspapers, magazines and books in our house. (TV didn’t have programs on until 4 PM, due to the oil crisis!) If there were books on a higher bookshelf, I simply climbed up on a chair to reach them. Those books weren’t there to be kept out of my reach; it was simply because the lower shelves were full and out of space.

I didn’t understand everything I read, but I got a pretty good sense of the what was going on in the world: the Cold War, the Iran hostage crisis, Pope John Paul getting shot, the KAL airliner shot down over Sakhalin, Lady Di getting married, etc. And the little domestic details/human interest anecdotes that were simple enough for me to understand, those have stayed with me. I remember a story about how some of the American hostages in Iran were freed because the Canadians helped get them fake passports. Afterwards, someone put up a billboard at the US-Canada border facing north that said “Thanks, Canada.” That was very touching.

Likewise, when Dad bought Richard Nixon’s autobiography, I read the first volume, but really never grasped the significance of Hiss or Checkers. What I do remember was how Dick and Pat went on their road-trip honeymoon, and their friends had played a joke on them by stripping off all the labels from their supply of canned food. So their meals were a crapshoot, perhaps two cans of beans for breakfast, or two fruit cocktail for dinner!

The main advertisers in weekly news magazines back then were airlines and booze. The airline ads were invariably variations on the same theme, a pretty smiling air hostess in the uniform of an Asian national air carrier (back in the one nation, one airline days!), and a simple route map that showed all the other cities that the airline served from their capital city/hub. I learned a lot of geography that way, but more importantly, one day, I wanted to go to visit all the cities on those airline route maps (Rarely did those maps show cities in China or India!) Back then I was locked in between two destinations, Bangkok and Hong Kong. It planted the travel bug in me: it nagged at me that I had never been off that beaten track to go to Seoul or Manila or Taipei. (Wait, I still haven’t been to any of those places!)

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