About Me

When not at work with students, I spend my time in my room either reading, calculating something using pen and paper, or using a computer. I read almost anything: from the pornographic to the profound, although my main interests are mathematics and physics. "When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes." -Erasmus

Saturday, November 13, 2010

on my reading worldline

My reading is not organized-- I'm more a reader of opportunity than someone who has a definite path through the literature, especially if the reading has nothing to do with my work. I'm a physicist, so what I should read are the research journals of my specialty: that means Physical Review D, Classical and Quantum Gravity, and other general relativity related journals.

Having said that, it means I shouldn't have time to read other things. Richard Feynman once criticized Tony Hey ( a Caltech postdoc at that time) with: "You read too many novels", because concentration is extremely important for a theoretical physicist who needs to make a name for himself in terms of publications. I happen to be guilty-- I do read too many novels. And not enough physics!

So how did I begin reading for pleasure?

When I was in first grade, the school library was off limits. There were old copies of Reader's digest at home, but a toddler won't appreciate reading all-text. One needs access to children's picture-books to be able to make the transition to better things. My aunt gave us coloring books and simple children's books as well. But such things will bore after you've read them a few times.

There was a childhood incident that set me to reading.When I was young, one of our househelp believed that there was going to be three days of darkness: she told us horrifying stories of what it would be like, and to top it off, she claimed that it was in the Bible. Now at that time, we had two Bibles at home, one was the New American Bible, and the other was The Good News Bible. For some reason, I decided to look up the claim, and I chose the Good News Bible to read because there were line drawings of some scenes.


The Bible is a thick book, and my decision was to start with Genesis and then go on from there. I think I was lucky that there are a lot of entertaining stories in Genesis. If the Bible began with the Prophets, I suppose my reading would have ground to a halt. (By the way, I still cannot abide reading the Prophets.) Adam and Eve, Noah's ark, Abraham, the stories of Jacob, Joseph and the rest of the family can be very entertaining.

It went downhill after Moses laid down the law, and I decided to skip to Samuel and the stories of David. After Samuel, I went to the New Testament to read the gospels. I also read Revelation, because that was where the three days of darkness was supposed to be, and for the life of me, I couldn't find it! That shook me. (But that is a story for another day.)

After first grade, my family moved from Las Pinas to
Caloocan, and it also meant changing schools-- from Las Pinas College to Claret school. That was a big change, and I owe a lot to Claret. The major event for me was the library tour during second grade. We were given library cards and set loose. I read things like Adarna books, Dr. Seuss, and then I made the transition to books for older people. The library was the bridge, because we didn't have children's books at home. Once I got into the habit of reading, I then moved on to Reader's Digest (probably during third grade.) I also read the old hand-me-down reading textbooks of my cousins. My cousin was about two grades ahead, and every year, their family gave his old schoolbooks to me.

The next milestone was my first "adult" book. I was in 4th grade at that time, and I decided to take on the challenge of reading one of my Dad's books. I read "The World According to Garp". I skipped Garp's writings (the book was about a novelist named Garp) for the entertainment of Garp's life. I sometimes think of getting my own copy, but keep forgetting to do so.


I also read books from the school library but none of them made as much of an impression on me as Garp, Reader's Digest and the Bible. After Garp, when I reached fifth grade, I felt ready to read the rest of my Dad's books.


From that time, I read through my Dad's copies of Robert Ludlum's books, and then went on to Frederick Forsyth and other thrillers and spy novels. My mom read romance novels, and I remember going behind her back to read them as well. Mills and Boon, Harlequin, Silhouette Desire, Barbara Cartland: all these were the sources of my entertainment, especially during the years we had no tv. Aside from these,
there were some memorable books: Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose, Twain's Tom Sawyer, Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged.

As a rule, I didn't read the classics, except for excerpts that showed up in the old reading textbooks from my cousin. The only classic I read for pleasure during my high school years was Tolkien's The Hobbit. I wanted to read the rest of the series, but I didn't have the money to buy the books. I think I avoided the classics during high school because they felt like schoolwork.

It was only after I entered university that I started sampling the classics them because I was bored by thrillers and romance novels, and wanted to read something else for entertainment.I started with D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's lover.

I didn’t plan to read fantasy—a friend of mine brought along his copy of The Hobbit, and I read it while pretending to be listening to my high school teachers. That got to be a habit of mine, and I remember being sent out of the room when a teacher discovered me reading and not paying attention to mathematics class. I remember placing the book I read within the textbook so that I would look like I was scanning the textbook while listening to the teacher.

Science fiction was also an accident—someone brought a copy of a collection of Heinlein’s short fiction to the theory group room, and I read it while I was waiting in-between classes. Once I found out I liked science fiction, I decided to explore other authors.

I got into more recent literary work also in university after browsing the shelves of the physics org, as well as the shelves of my friends. For example, I read some of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, in-between classes and borrowing the books from a friend. I read parts of the Last Temptation of Christ during tambay hours at the physics org.

I also read non-fiction. My thesis adviser likes reading nonfiction, and he has an extensive collection. I learned about Malcolm Gladwell’s books from him, and about other writers who do good nonfiction. You could spend a lot of time just reading from my thesis adviser’s collection.

How do I choose what I read these days? I actually do it at random. I walk through the shelves of Book Sale or National bookstore, or whatever bookstore I'm in and scan the titles, browse through a few pages, and if what I read grabs me, I buy it. Or I look at Amazon's catalog and check out the titles and summaries, as well as reader reactions. I also look up Wikipedia entries of the authors. If the book looks interesting, I either buy it or download.

Some authors (Orson Scott Card, and Larry Niven, for example) I got to know because I found them in Book Sale, and at a bargain price. Once I like what I've read, I remember the names and look for other examples of their work.

Another way is by listening to friends talk about what they've read. For example, I read Harry Potter after noticing that a few of my dorm-mates were carrying it around to read. After they've read the book, I borrowed their copies so that I could read it as well.

There are many times when I have to fall in line and wait. It is not for nothing that U. P. stands for "university of Pila". I've found that a good book will always help me pass the time.

There is no grand design-- I don't have a notion that I should read, or even worse, that there is a set of books that I ought to read. Like a lot of things in my life, my reading is a stochastic process.





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