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How the library shaped my life




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By Benjamin Cheah

Books are my life. As a reader, I look for books that take me inside someone else’s vision or tell me something interesting about the world. As a writer, I seek fresh material to study.

Growing up, libraries were a second home. They were gateways to new worlds and original thought. I trekked across Singapore to hunt for obscure books, searched for weeks to find specialist texts and spent many hours poring over prose.

The National Library Board’s decision to ban and pulp three titles struck a bitter chord with me. Supporters of the decision claimed that children would not know better, that the books contradicted family values and social norms.

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My life showed otherwise.

Lessons from Literature

 My early childhood was defined by world mythology. The Chinese classic Journey to the West shared space with the tale of King Arthur, while European fairy tales segued into folktales from Africa. One day I watched Morgiana slay the 40 thieves hounding Ali Baba, and the next I cheered Ulysses confounding the Cyclopes.

Religion followed. I read the mysteries of the Australian Dreamtime one day, and the next Osiris passing judgment on the dead. I saw one world end with the blowing of the seventh trumpet, and another begin when Prajapathi divided into husband and wife.

From these stories I learned how beliefs influenced society, embraced the universal human yearning to make meaning of a complex world, and saw the thousand faces of the Creator. These stories celebrated virtues like intelligence, compassion, and courage. My peers held mortals like David Beckham and Michael Jackson in high regard; my childhood heroes were Theseus and Thor, He Xiangu and Athena.

Eventually I wandered to the adult section. Arthur C. Clarke showed me the wonder of an infinite cosmos, while Terry Pratchett carried me off to fantastic lands based on this world. Sherlock Holmes taught the art of deduction, and John Ross confronted evil with staff and magic. Then I found Tom Clancy, whose trademark was his adherence to realism.

The last ignited a spark. I took to my computer and pounded out a story. That spark grew into a blaze, lighting the path for my calling as a writer.

Since then I sought books that would help me with my work and life. The Book of Five Rings described the martial spirit. Barry Eisler’s character-driven thrillers set the benchmark for my work. Plato’s Republic taught me how to think. David Drake’s VoyageAcross the Stars placed a futuristic twist on the myths of my youth. Jim Butcher melded high fantasy and low life in modern-day Chicago.

These writers, stories and myths set the stage for my own writing. All of them came from the library.

Real world influences

Books have brought great good into my life, but like the parable of  Pandora’s Box, they have shown me great evil.Violence was an everyday occurrence. So was sex, in most common permutations, within and without marriage. Anti-heroes regularly drank and drugged themselves into oblivion, and thought little of betraying their oaths.

Other books showed me people and world views I could not agree with. Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp routinely tortured terrorists. Tim LaHaye’sLeft Behind series promoted Dominionism through apocalyptic fiction. A slew of lesser works showed me the difference between being published and mastery of the craft of writing.

Despite frequently reading what some would call questionable content, I turned out all right. I live completely straight edge, without tobacco or drugs and only minute amounts of alcohol, and I don’t seek violence for its own sake.

My childhood grounding in mythology taught me that people were complex beings. Heracles was famous for his strength, but infamous for his rage. Loki’s animal cunning helped Thor recover his hammer and led to the death of Baldr. Lancelot was the greatest of Arthur’s knights, yet betrayed his king through his affair with Guinevere. Through books I learned to separate the good from the evil, to embody virtue and avoid vice, and that actions had consequences.

Books have shown me that the world is larger than a single man. Destroying a book is destroying a world. It diminishes the richness of the human experience, denying the fruits of the human mind and extinguishing a spark of genius.

The banned books promote good parenting and happy families. The myths I read as a child portrayed incest, parental abuse, brutality, licentiousness, covetousness and bigotry. Somehow the former is not appropriate for children, yet the latter are. If the former can be banned at the drop of a hat, how soon will the latter be carted to the pulping machines?

No one person has a monopoly on truth, no one group possesses the gospel of life. The point of literature is to expand horizons and broaden perspectives, to bring many constructed worlds into the mind so one can view this one in a brighter light.It cannot possibly reflect social norms alone; it changes them by introducing different views.

The people who want to ban books in the name of preserving social norms want to preserve their comfort zone instead of expanding them. In so doing encourage the stagnation of the human spirit.

For these people, I recommend Fahrenheit 451. 

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