I lost reading along the way growing up, shedding the stripes that had marked a bookish boyhood. The fad of the internet defined my youth, crossing fatefully with streaks of rebelliousness and the fruitless search for belonging. In all three worlds, there was no place for books.
Reading was for losers. The cool kids hung out at internet cafes, with much hollering over dins announcing monster kills and trading of insults as fast as the mouse moved. Then they gathered at neighborhood courts, playing rough pass-and-shoots and amateur hoops, working up uniforms to a stink. The cool kids did badly at school, and as pride and reward, stayed back for remedial classes where, instead of studying, they played a double game racing each other on digital asphalts on their nifty flip-phones while expertly practicing deceit before the teacher’s gaze. Nobody read, unless it was for class. Reading was a chore, a bore. When the holidays rolled around, teachers tried to encourage us to write a book review, but the picking up of any codex was odiously anathema to an academic break. Reading for pleasure was literally unheard of.
I tried to fit in, fell out, and tumbled down the grades ladder. Investments have their due returns. It was 2008 and everything caught up at once—the economy crashed, I did badly at the school-leaving examinations, and adolescence reached its existential peak, tanked, and slowly bottomed out. I had no one to love; former interests fizzled out. I had no idea where I was going, what I was going to do. Suddenly, it was no longer cool to be cool. Everything seemed barren. The soul scrapped about, like a madman scratching his fingers for a coin in the hollow of the barrel. It was a spiritual crisis. I roiled against myself. And then I discovered a Golden book.
This unbidden book was Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha, and I fell under its spell. Gion Japan was magic. The life of a twentieth-century geisha with her painted face was so terribly removed in time and place, but the traps and trappings of a fictive existence rendered in purple prose was illuminating and seductive, simply unputdownable. I consumed an electronic copy on an old Nokia 5610, blazing through page after page with a click, enthralled and entirely immersed. When I was finished, I felt triumphant and sad. I never knew such transportations could exist with words. I read it again, a second time. I purchased a softback to confirm that this was not a passing “cool,” to ascertain whether what I felt was true, even though this new truth never felt more shadowy and ill-defined. What I did not know then is that this experience would prove to be a new beginning, an awakening, a rediscovery of reading. That very week, I went out to the nearest bookstore and blew eighty dollars on seven books. Then I moved on to other books and never looked back.
Such was the beginning of a constant quest to recapture that experience of a new world opening up upon the first pages and the exquisite pleasure of closing the fullness of that world at its end. The paperback copy of Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha sat on my shelf for seven years. In that time, its pages yellowed and gathered dust while I mellowed and matured, entering somewhat unexpectedly a more bookish adulthood. My reading blossomed and with every new addition; my collection of books grew more unprincipled, illogical, and strange. No one teaches you how to curate your reading, so I learned along the way, stumbling from the bestsellers’ list and falling for book endorsements and friends’ recommendations. Then it became more academic (responding to the trials of university, which I eventually attended), more eclectic, more lethargic too, more occultic (moving from conventional genres to more obscure ones). Each successive passage of the year, with its variegated seasons, weighed in on my thoughts, offering their suggestions, changing the taste of acquisition just as each tome expanded and contracted the circle of knowledge, rounding out my early adulthood.
Then the lean years came—adulthood entered its frustrating phase. Golden’s book sat on my shelf for another four years, during which time it browned out and became a forgotten fixture in the firmament of paperbacks. It got an airing every spring, but it had become a memento, a relic of a different time. Inevitably, I packed it away. I had become afraid to read it again. Along the way, someone had whispered that it was a bad book, and I had believed them. So I resisted revisiting it, unwilling to sully the epiphanic first encounter that had set me on this path.
Then I traveled and lived abroad. I sought out more books. I read and somehow decided that I wanted a career with books. Thirteen years is a long time for transformation. From the heights of a rebellious cool, I had arrived as an aspiring academic. Now I was reading to learn and to unlearn. I was reading for work. I read in foreign languages. I speed-read. I read paragraphs of whole tomes. I read with my ears while falling asleep. I read lines and critiqued them, and I joined the ranks of those who made critique an austere and hallowed discipline. In the midst of all this reading, the books kept on piling up, filing away like convicts whose sentences were forgotten. Then as it was wont to do, the world crashed again.
It was 2021 and the city was shuttered. Governments were scrambling in response to an unknown contagion while people were united by dying alone in unknown beds. It was a violent and angry time. Trapped at home, my shelves were waiting for me. And out tumbled Memoirs of a Geisha. The tumbling happened in the unpacking of new books to mingle with the old, which turned out to be a serendipitous invitation to reread what I had long forgotten and blithely suppressed. The surprise overcame my doubt, so I picked it up and read.
Rereading is a great commitment, but it also is filled with the danger of encountering the illusions that might have haunted our past selves. Reader, I cannot say that I completed a rereading whole and true, that I parsed every sentence, subjecting each to a rigorous analysis. Instead, it turned out to be a short read as I idly grasped at paragraph after paragraph, like a rower dipping his oar in wide arcs in a futile attempt to fill the remainder of an afternoon. And there are no surprises here: rereading confirmed the growing doubts and filled me with a sense of disappointment. The dialogue was snappy, but the characters felt one-dimensional. The metaphors and symbols which had once charmed my teenage self now felt tawdry, soapy, and overwrought. When you can see the artifice, everything seems artificial. Halfway through, I put the book aside. Needless to say, my rereading confirmed the murmured nays of the book-whisperers; Memoirs of a Geisha was a perfect specimen of a rose-tinted Orientalism that mystified, exoticized, and sexualized the East. More than the loss of innocence that now characterized both the protagonist and myself, what struck me now was the realization that we were both living a poor pastiche, a cliché. Perhaps the fault was entirely mine: I was no longer the reader I was before. But at the same time, it was a necessary rite of passage that I did not know I needed. I felt I had liberated myself by undergoing this painful ordeal, arriving at the moment when I became dispossessed of nostalgia to arrive at a greater unlearning.
When the time came for culling my collection, Golden’s book did not survive the cut. But for the love of paper and books, it went to a book exchange, destined for other hands and eyes. I imagine someone else might learn to learn and then unlearn. Or maybe not; everyone has a different reading trajectory.
“Suppose you and I were sitting in a quiet room overlooking a garden, chatting and sipping at our cups of green tea while we talked about something that had happened a long while ago, and I said to you, ‘That afternoon when I met so-and-so … was the very best afternoon of my life, and also the very worst afternoon.’”
So begins the first line of the first chapter of the novel. In a way, both of those afternoons, when the world and I were in pieces, encountering Golden’s book seemed to me both the very best and also the very worst.
Benjamin J.Q. Khoo is a writer and researcher based in Singapore. He works on the diplomatic and cultural history of early modern Asia.