Skip navigation

How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden

There is a great deal to be said about serendipity – those little moments in which the world seems to resolve for you a particular course of action. The right course of action. Where the Logos seems to breath you in a deliberate direction, and the world unites to open a certain path.

In my case, re-open.

I believe the universe is self correcting. It can be counted on to give you the right nudge.

Meryam, a little while ago, gushed effervescently about The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. She quoted a series of extravagant extracts from the book, revealing a casual yet lyrical style of writing.

Writing that made words alive, breathing, vital.

At first I thought I should leave a comment and say that I’d add the book to the list of my books to get around to reading if it deserved such high praise from such an ardent book lover, and secondly I wondered if the HKU library had the book.

I didn’t get around to checking.

It was too early in the morning to be keen on a book.

Besides, I wasn’t reading these days. Not fiction. I’ve got the outstanding, comprehensive and succinctly written Africa: A Biography of the Continent by John Reader half plowed through. The Road to Reality has barely been tread upon (Penrose is both more obtuse and more rewarding than I expected him to be and as a result progress has been slow) and the last fiction book I’d read was the Harry Potter finale, which was compulsory rather then compulsive.

I shuffled into the HKU library.

It was a dismal day.


I’d spent the last day preparing the bail application that had been billed as the challenge of all challenges by the HKU PCLL advocacy program. It turned out to be as foreboding as a ball of lint charging down a brick wall.

A teacher who didn’t want to be there, and who offered no real feedback. A jaded teacher, who’d seen it all before and wanted to go home. People petrified of public speaking, the very thing I was anticipating. An exercise designed to make us work through the initial panic of public speaking rather than teach anything more.

There are downsides to courses taught by practitioners. One is that they make lousy teachers.

I shuffled in to the library dismayed because I had expected something refreshing and challenging; disappointed because it had been pedestrian. Because it confirmed that everything was pedestrian.

I drifted over to the new books section. I seek solace in books. They have a magic ability to transport us to where they are. To a place where these constraints don’t apply. Where, through the story, we learn something vital, something fundamental about our world. This was a moment where I needed to be somewhere else, somewhere different. Somewhere out of this depressing plateau of faceless toothless challenges.

I hadn’t found this solace in a long time. Books had let me down now. A book didn’t seduce the way it used to. I had my nostalgia for books but no hope for solace from them.

The HKU library stacks new arrivals, new fiction arrivals, in four black steel spinning stands near the main entrance. Four shelves high and with shelving on each side of the iron squares around the stand, there are usually about 50 odd books on each of the four stands. I had little to lose, I needed to take my mind off the last two hours.

I spun the stand.

The lady on the other side (lady? She was a wisp of a girl, with high angular eyes and a very short nose and skirt. Attractive enough even though she wasn’t quite the conventional beauty) gave me a very queer look. You don’t it seems select books randomly by spinning the stand. You were supposed to pretend that you were looking for something. To have a definite reason. To browse. To act purposely, even, maybe especially, when little purpose was discernable.

The stand stopped spinning. Glaring at me conspicuously, it’s cover bright red and the gold text glaring into my eyes were the words “The Thirteenth Tale”.

Here was a sign. Here was the universe talking back. Here, now, by this, today could be redeemed.

I accepted.

I secreted myself in my room. I pulled the curtain closed and turned on the lights. I put on some light music, Rachmaninov playing softly in the background, to sooth my easily distracted nature.

And I read. And read. And read.

I couldn’t stop reading.

10 pages. A 100 pages. Hundreds of pages.

Here was a book that captured the essence of reading. Evoked it by talking about it subtly powerfully constantly. The singular pleasure of books and words. Here was a book that made you read and understood why you read. Whole paragraphs resonated deeply:

“And yet I cannot pretend that the reading I have done in my adult years matches in its impact on my soul the reading I did as a child. I still believe in stories. I still forget myself when I am in the middle of a good book. Yet it is not the same… When I was a child, books were everything. And so there is in me, always, a nostalgic yearning for the lost pleasure of books.”

This book, this Thirteenth Tale, that told a Thirteenth Tale tinged in mystery and misery, recaptured that feeling. It reawoke that feeling, that spark, that joy. I felt the deep compulsive joy of reading. What it described as lost, I found in it. I felt that exhilarating rush of the complete story, the beauty of being serenaded by immaculate words.

Immersed, cleansed, soothed, that world weary cynical shell, my armour dropped away. Accepting internally the need for escapism. Accepting that these books were treading paths I needed to tread. Paths I could not venture alone in my mind without their gentle guiding hand. Without this guiding hand, all those months I had felt the inanity become intolerable, building to a fever pitch, a crescendo of silence.

Now with this small keel, this little stability that gives me time to center myself, I find I had the strength of personality and character to deal with my difficulties. To push myself to come to grips with the situation. To make the choices that I know I have to make.

I set about stacking my book shelf, knowing that I will need these in later days. These new stories with new truths in them. New centers to build a base from. New moments of solitude, relaxation and distance. Markus Zusak, Death and his little favorite “The Book Thief” now sits half open before me. On my shelf, waiting patiently next sits “Snow Falling on Cedars” a book urged on me for so long, I feel obliged to take a look to make up my own mind. Next to it sits a true promising gem, Kiran Desai’s award winning “The Inheritance of Loss” which won the Booker prize.

Do you have any others to recommend?