Which books transformed you, stopped you midway in your steps, making you pause and see things differently, so that in the end they enabled you to understand in an altered light?
For me, the books which marked distinct turning points in my life and which have sustained me include:
* Le Meunier, Son Fils et l’Âne (The Miller, His Son and the Donkey) by Jean de la Fontaine;
* Hoa Thiên Lý (Tonkin Jasmine) by Duyên Anh;
* Tao The Ching by Lao Tzu; and
* The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
Le Meunier, Son Fils et l’Âne (The Miller, His Son and the Donkey) by Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695) was the first book I had ever bought with my own money. One Saturday afternoon I had taken the elevator down from our apartment on the seventh floor to play by myself in the complex grounds where we were living at the time in Eaubonne, Paris. Shuffling my sand shoes along the dirt with eyes downcast, I saw in the ground a silver coin. Bending down hastily, I picked up the five francs. How the sun glowed brighter and the air seemed cheerier when I had an unexpected coin resting in the palm of my eight-year old hands! Yippee! I ran to the strip of shops nearby and dashed straight to the book and magazine section of the news agency to admire the selection of little books I had been eyeing for sometime now. I picked up Le Meunier, Son Fils et l’Âne, checked that the price was right and went to the cash register. The man behind the counter looked at me and nodded his head and said, “You’ve chosen wisely. This is a very good pick. Excellent choice!” I had no idea why. I gave him my coin and walked out with the book in a small paper bag. It had not even occurred to me that I could have bought candy or a toy with the coin. I only wanted a book. Later, having read this fable by Jean de la Fontaine again and again, I understood why the shopkeeper had affirmed my selection. The tale taught me that different people do things differently, and that people will not hesitate to express their opinion and laugh at you when you are different. More than this, however, the shopkeeper’s gaze and his words stayed with me throughout my childhood. He saw me. I was not invisible. He praised me for this one conscious act. I did well. One book, one word of praise, one look of recognition did mean something. They sustained me through a fragmented childhood.
Hoa Thiên Lý (Tonkin Jasmine) by Duyên Anh (1935-1997) is a compilation of short stories by one of Vietnam’s most prolific writers, that my sister had passed on to me to read when I was twelve years old. I had just arrived in Australia maybe twelve months before that, and although I had not gone to school in Vietnam, I was able to read Vietnamese nonetheless. While the short stories contained in Duyên Anh’s very first published works are all excellent, it was specifically the story of Con Sáo Của Em Tôi (My Little Sister’s Mynah Bird) that had a distinct impact on me.
(Note: These titles are my own translation and may not appear elsewhere in relation to Duyên Anh’s works)
The story is told in the voice of a little boy who grows up in South Vietnam, downtrodden and shunned by both sides of his family due to poverty and the circumstances of his having been born out of wedlock. The saving grace in his life is his love for his mother and his even greater love for his little sister, “em tôi”. To cheer his sister up, he makes a bird’s nest high in the tree branches for a couple of mynah birds to lay their eggs. He eventually succeeds in catching and in keeping one of the mynah birds as a pet for his sister. But, being so poor and hungry that on New Year’s Eve, he sneaks out and kills the bird, roasting it so that “em” has something to fill her tummy and celebrate New Year’s Day. She devours her meal without knowing that it is her precious mynah pet. I was weeping and heartbroken when the brother confessed the truth to his little sister, marking the end of her innocence. I learned that when you are so poor that you do not have enough to eat, so destitute that you have no playmates and are rejected by society around you, nature is still there to support you, heal you and enrich your life. The story completely tore me up inside, however. I could not judge whether the brother had acted rightly or wrongly, and I wept uncontrollably. This anguish followed me around for months. I sensed that maybe love has a great cost. Sometimes, it may be impossible to judge an action and to completely understand a person and their act of love.
Tao The Ching by Lao Tzu (6th Century B.C.) consists of eighty-one verses. When I flipped through the black and white photographs and glimpsed the verses of the translated version by Gia-fu Feng, Jane English and Toinette Lippe (Vintage:1997), I felt that I had been given a great gift. I was in my late teens at that time, and Verse Thirty-Three struck me most deeply:
Knowing others is wisdom;
Knowing the self is enlightenment.
Mastering others requires force;
Mastering the self needs strength.
Those who know they have enough are rich.
Perseverance is a sign of willpower.
Those who stay where they are endure.
To die but not perish is to be eternally present.
The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) is a book I was given as an unexpected present by a colleague when I was involved in community work in Brisbane, Australia, during my twenties. At first, when I looked through it, I felt the text a bit too antiquated in its wording and somehow too distant. A few months later, however, I was sitting in my room, feeling broken, desolate and hurting, I picked up this book and opened to a random page. On the page, was inscribed these words:
Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burns your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.
Which books changed your heart, transformed your thinking, maybe saved you, lifting you through an important moment in your life?