Reviving a long-disused tongue.

I recently finished reading the first collection in
射雕英雄传 Legends of the Condor Heroes, a wuxia/martial arts serialized epic by Hong Kong author 金庸 Jin Yong.

This book is titled A Hero Born and is an English translation by Anna Holmwood; it captures the first nine parts in a 40-part serial. (According to Wikipedia, 射雕英雄传 has a character count of over 900,000.) I stumbled on A Hero Born while randomly browsing shelves in the local library. I’ve lived in Hong Kong but I’d never heard of 金庸, so my interest was piqued. Apparently he’s a household name there, who first published his stories as serials in the newspapers. I’ve since spoken to my handful of HK friends and acquaintances. All of them knew his name.

Through a combination of Wikipedia and Baidu, and my now more-intuitive-than-concrete grasp of Mandarin, I found 金庸’s complete serials/novels online in simplified Chinese, including 射雕英雄传 here. As good a time as any to practise reading and comprehending my mother tongue again.

I decided to read it out loud. It took half an hour, CN-to-EN dictionary in hand, to translate and read the first paragraph of Chapter 1. Though half that time was re-reciting it to help my recall of the characters.

Well… I already knew my Mandarin vocabulary has atrophied over the years, but the extent of deterioration is incredible, if unsurprising. Still, it felt like a slap in the face by an insidious kind of impostor syndrome.

Translation and recall is tough work, but this is worth persevering through over time. I’m thinking of transcribing the text by hand — after all, physically writing things does help with comprehension and recall. And perhaps, eat some serious humble pie and ask my Chinese friends to be language buddies.

And to think that my local library was the catalyst for all this. Aren’t libraries wonderful?

📚 Now reading: Earth is But a Star. And a musing about reading anthologies.

Earth is But a Star, edited by Damien Broderick.
A science-fiction anthology of far-future/dying Earth stories and essays, by writers including Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, C.J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Robert Silverberg. A fascinating, if cerebral, read through contemplations on humanity and Earth’s far-distant future.

This book is out of print. I first saw this in a local library and was so taken by the theme that I determined to buy a copy by hook or by crook. I ended up emailing the publisher, a small university imprint, and asking if they had any copies leftover from the original print run. Remarkably, they did and were willing to sell. So I had the whimsical experience of calling up and buying an OOP book directly from its publisher.


Unlike novels, the format of anthologies encourage dipping in and out of it as you please, picking and choosing which stories to read, not needing to read anything in order. Earth is But a Star has fiction interspersed with essays, so it’s tempting to just read all the fiction and then check out an essay or two, maybe read them later. (But face it, “read them later” never happens.) But I resolved to read the anthology in order from cover to cover. In doing so, I noticed something.

This habit of dipping in and out of a collection of stories is encouraged (or exacerbated) by publishing in the Internet age. News websites, blogs, online fiction ‘zines; and the practice of saving articles to Instapaper or Pocket… it’s so easy to read a piece of writing online that is isolated and removed from any surrounding context. Even online fiction ‘zines present their issues less in book-form with stories nestled between covers and lined up in a certain order, but as a landing page from which one clicks on links to stories. Apart from being linked from the same page, an online story or article has no spatial or temporal relation to the other stories in the issue. Less sense of a chronology, more sense of a radial branching network. That’s the kind of pattern that arises from a hypertext medium.

Whereas a physical ‘zine or anthology has stories in some sort of sequential order. Sure, a webpage has that too (the links are in some order), but a physical book embodies that orderly restraint more stringently than hypertext. One subconsciously assumes that there is a purpose to that order, and I’m certain there is.

Even so, one can still dip in and out of an anthology. It’s easy to jump ahead to the next story if the current one doesn’t hold your attention. Especially in Earth is But a Star, where I’m vastly more interested in the fiction than in the essays. But I resolved to have some self-control and read from cover to cover, missing nothing.

But I think there’s more to this than self-control: it’s being willing to surrender myself to the journey within the book. I’m relinquishing my choice to dictate which order I read the stories, and allow the book (and the editor/s) to lead me from page to page.

In this Internet age where reading material is rife and often disembodied from context, and the consumer is the one dictating how and in what order to consume media, it is a discipline to relinquish this choice and submit oneself to be led in a specific way. But I think there’s something profound in this submission. I’m accepting that the editor has purpose and meaning to this narrative trajectory they want me to go on. That there is a meaning and motive behind this journey, and that is worth exploring and pondering, even if I don’t agree with the trajectory. That every stop made, be it a short story or an essay, is a worthy stop to make right here, right now, at this point in the anthology. By surrendering myself to a journey directed by someone else, and resolving not to miss any stops, I get to experience a narrative different from mine.

Yes, it’s something (relatively) trivial: reading a fiction anthology cover to cover. But if I can’t submit my attention and choice to an anthology editor, am I willing to submit to some more important story? If I can’t take time to read a fiction collection in order without missing anything, how can I expect to take time to read and thoroughly investigate some bigger, more serious news issue, from all angles?

Sustaining attention through a narrative trajectory is a habit to cultivate in the trivial occasions as in the more serious occasions. Best I start with a science-fiction anthology.

Voices from pages.

The last few months have been consumed with reading Patrick O’Brian. More recently, George MacDonald.

The first time, it took me 2 years to get from Master and Commander to The Reverse of the Medal (as recorded at Ath). This time, it took me 2 months to traverse the same route, and beyond. (Picking up Clarissa Oakes today, and I can see myself finishing the series in good time.) I’ve been averaging two days per book, so thoroughly have I been caught up in the music of O’Brian’s storytelling. There’s no other way to describe the language than “lyrical”. The series is a symphony, each book a variation on the theme of Jack and Stephen’s lifelong friendship. Secondary characters add their own themes, and become just as beloved as the two heroes. The series has everything that one could love in a fine saga: delightful, poignant, humourous (sometimes absurdly so), exciting and suspenseful and sometimes grim, predominantly lighthearted… Above all, musical, like the song of water running past the sailing Surprise.


Some years ago I fell in love with George MacDonald’s fantastical novels, Phantastes and Lilith, and have lately been reading his less-known works via Project Gutenberg. They are tales of Scotch and English country life in general, and people coming to faith in Jesus in particular. MacDonald’s portrayal of journeys to faith resonates strongly with me, because I myself have experienced some of those crises and doubts, and resultant growth towards God, and I fancy I see a bit of my own reflection in many of the characters’ struggles and victories. Didactism aside, MacDonald writes lovely stories. They are intimate and thoughtful, and draw from deep wells of sorrow and joy. I’ve read only a few novels so far — Thomas Wingfold, Curate and There and Back standing out most strongly — but they’ve already made a huge impression on me.

The stories may be intimate and personal, the characters portrayed in exquisite and loving detail, but the landscape in which they are set is vast as eternity. I cannot help but feel like a strong wind is blowing through the pages of MacDonald’s novels — felt it as early as Phantastes. This is the cold, implacable, primal wind that causes clouds to scud overhead; yet this same wind puts a hunger in me for something as wide and great as the trackless sky, a longing to reach and touch the cold and eternal stars far above who are so much closer to God. I daresay, this is the wind of the Holy Spirit breathing through MacDonald’s novels.

Reading list for 2013.

GENERALLY: Patrick O’Brian, Patricia A. McKillip, Guy Gavriel Kay.

A Shadow in Summer by Daniel Abraham.
Gridlinked by Neal Asher.
Dust by Elizabeth Bear.
Sly Mongoose by Tobias Buckell.
Cyteen by C.J. Cherryh.
Count Zero by William Gibson.
The Half-Made World by Felix Gilman.
Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean.
Silverlock by John Myers Myers.
Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson.
100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson.
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe.

All the Windwracked Stars by Elizabeth Bear.
The Warrior’s Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold.
Downbelow Station by C.J. Cherryh.
Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson.
The City and the City by China Miéville.
The Thirteen-and-a-Half Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers.
Abhorsen trilogy by Garth Nix.
Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg.
Veniss Underground by Jeff VanderMeer.

On maintaining a narrow depth of field.

Public transport is a reader’s best friend. If you have a long commute like I do, you have plenty of uninterrupted time to get lost in a book; what’s more, someone else is getting you to your destination while you’re enjoying yourself! The best kind of multi-tasking. So I’ve been making huge dents in my TBR list this year.

A long commute also allows uninterrupted thinking time. This is a long post for a long train of thought on books.

(I haven’t blogged for several years, and my voice is very rusty. I’m re-learning craft and polish; pardon the stilted tone and raw edges.)

The more books I read, the less tolerant I become of mediocrity, be it in books or film. It used to be simply poor authorship that gets me tetchy, but now the bar has increased to mediocre authorship. I may have been able to read Twilight (a decidedly mediocre book) 4-5 years ago, but I don’t think I could anymore. I used to adore China Miéville’s authorship; now, not so much, even though I still like his stories. I’ve now read enough to know what is good writing — and that has whet my appetite for even better writing. Nothing less will satisfy now. Continue reading “On maintaining a narrow depth of field.”