Books Saved My Life

It was 1974. I was a first-year student in the Faculty of Dentistry in the then University of Singapore. My residential hall, KE Hall, had a small library and I was there trying to study for upcoming exams. In a moment of boredom, I decided to check out the collection in that small library and found a book, The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin, 1954). I took it down and began to read. And I was lost. Exams, and indeed life, were forgotten as I joined the fellowship of the ring on their quest. I was horrified to find at the end of the book that it was the first book in a trilogy and the library didn’t have the other two books. Like a drug addict, I put life on hold for the next few days as I visited all the books stores I knew and was only able to breathe again when I found the trilogy and could read parts 2 and 3. I would go on to read the trilogy eight more times in my life to date. The trilogy would become the primary mythic narrative of my life.

Through reading and rereading the trilogy, I learnt and relearnt the following lessons and more:

  • We can’t choose the circumstances of our life. But we can choose how to respond to them.
  • In life you do the right thing, not the convenient thing.
  • Life can be very, very tough. Often you may be tempted to give up.
  • We all need key friends to see us through.
  • No one is above the corrupting power of evil.
  • The forces of evil can be very powerful.
  • There is much pain and loss in life.
  • The forces of good are unleashed by deceptively simple things like loyalty, faith and friendship.
  • Leaders lead through example and sacrifice.
  • The most unexpected people may become heroes.
  • True heroes are those who do not seek to do great things. They are the ones that give themselves to serve others.
  • Although it is often not obvious, there is a higher power in control of life and this power ensures that things all work out in the end.
  • We live and die, but as we live in this world we all have the opportunity to make our contribution to the pages of history.
  • Tolkien’s trilogy was a curriculum for life that helped me process that great joys and deep darkness that awaited me after university. Books have great power.

    I am not saying that other media don’t have power. There have been a few movies that have moved me deeply and given me wisdom for life, including Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of Tolkien’s books, The Matrix (1999), and Star Wars 4 (1977). But I have discovered that books have a unique magic that touches you and shapes you, and that the right book at the right time can save your life.

    A second book that saved my life was Luci Shaw’s God in the Dark (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989). I was in Bookazine in SS2 Petaling Jaya one afternoon (this bookstore chain has since closed down) and saw a pile of books on the floor that were on sale. One of the titles was Shaw’s book, a journal account that chronicled the period between when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer to the early days of her widowhood. I had no inkling that I would be following her down the path of widowhood. Her book was a key book in those very dark days after I had lost my wife to cancer. Her writing helped me to articulate my grief and helped me realise I was not alone. Here is one reading from the book:

    I keep looking back at these recent days, wondering. Unreality wraps them round like a tent. It encloses me in artificial darkness. Unlike the sky, there is no twilight; I see no pinprick stars. The hymns and Scriptures we have chosen for the funeral seem fitting, but somehow abstract.

    I am a widow, a social symbol, my face smiling to the family, my friends, with a sharp superficial brightness that glares like an unshielded light bulb. I am alone, but I cannot cry. Where is God when I need him? . . . I am feeling buried alive in my own emotional emptiness. (167)

    Of course the primary book of my life is the Bible. It is God’s chosen medium to speak to us. At key points of my life, God has spoken to me through the Bible in very specific ways; though all study of the Bible will allow us to hear His voice and to see His heart. All disciples of Jesus should be committed to an ongoing study of the Bible. The Living Word speaks to us through the Bible, the Written Word. But I think disciples of Jesus should read books apart from the Scriptures. Indeed, followers of Jesus should also be committed to an ongoing study of all sorts of good books. The Bible is our central book, but God speaks to us in a variety of ways and books often give flesh to the truths in the Bible. The right book at the right time is a burning bush where we encounter God, and that could be an encounter that saves our lives.

    Taking the Time Crunch Seriously

    Taking the Time Crunch Seriously

    Recently the WHO officially recognised “workplace burnout” as a workplace phenomenon. Defined as a state of “vital exhaustion…burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed…”. Many of us shake our...

    read more
    Book Review: The Pattern

    Book Review: The Pattern

    Authored by Dev Menon I am usually sceptical about Christian books on dating, romantic relationships and marriage as I feel that a lot of the material out there is either heavily influenced by secular philosophy and feel-good advice or, on the other extreme, imposes...

    read more
    Almost Enoch

    Almost Enoch

    Eric passed away in the early hours of May 27, 2019. He was supposed to have passed away five years earlier. Eric, cousin of Michael, Bernice’s first husband, had been fighting renal failure for a long time. Five years ago, he refused to start receiving dialysis....

    read more
    Editor’s Review: An Owl’s Journey

    Editor’s Review: An Owl’s Journey

    Whether as a co-labourer in Christ, a recipient of his ministry, or as his friend, the writers of this festschrift are united in their honour and high regard for Pastor David Wong. Each writer addresses the area in which his/her and Pastor David’s interests intersect....

    read more
    Book Review: The Plate Spinner

    Book Review: The Plate Spinner

    Authored by Dev Menon In a busy and hectic society like Singapore, one word that everyone, from primary school students to working adults, all long for is “time”. We give excuses that we have no time, we say, “I need more time” or “I got not enough time” (pardon the...

    read more

    Books Saved My Life

    It was 1974. I was a first-year student in the Faculty of Dentistry in the then University of Singapore. My residential hall, KE Hall, had a small library and I was there trying to study for upcoming exams. In a moment of boredom, I decided to check out the collection in that small library and found a book, The Fellowship of the Ring by JRR Tolkien (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin, 1954). I took it down and began to read. And I was lost. Exams, and indeed life, were forgotten as I joined the fellowship of the ring on their quest. I was horrified to find at the end of the book that it was the first book in a trilogy and the library didn’t have the other two books. Like a drug addict, I put life on hold for the next few days as I visited all the books stores I knew and was only able to breathe again when I found the trilogy and could read parts 2 and 3. I would go on to read the trilogy eight more times in my life to date. The trilogy would become the primary mythic narrative of my life.

    Through reading and rereading the trilogy, I learnt and relearnt the following lessons and more:

  • We can’t choose the circumstances of our life. But we can choose how to respond to them.
  • In life you do the right thing, not the convenient thing.
  • Life can be very, very tough. Often you may be tempted to give up.
  • We all need key friends to see us through.
  • No one is above the corrupting power of evil.
  • The forces of evil can be very powerful.
  • There is much pain and loss in life.
  • The forces of good are unleashed by deceptively simple things like loyalty, faith and friendship.
  • Leaders lead through example and sacrifice.
  • The most unexpected people may become heroes.
  • True heroes are those who do not seek to do great things. They are the ones that give themselves to serve others.
  • Although it is often not obvious, there is a higher power in control of life and this power ensures that things all work out in the end.
  • We live and die, but as we live in this world we all have the opportunity to make our contribution to the pages of history.
  • Tolkien’s trilogy was a curriculum for life that helped me process that great joys and deep darkness that awaited me after university. Books have great power.

    I am not saying that other media don’t have power. There have been a few movies that have moved me deeply and given me wisdom for life, including Peter Jackson’s movie adaptation of Tolkien’s books, The Matrix (1999), and Star Wars 4 (1977). But I have discovered that books have a unique magic that touches you and shapes you, and that the right book at the right time can save your life.

    A second book that saved my life was Luci Shaw’s God in the Dark (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1989). I was in Bookazine in SS2 Petaling Jaya one afternoon (this bookstore chain has since closed down) and saw a pile of books on the floor that were on sale. One of the titles was Shaw’s book, a journal account that chronicled the period between when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer to the early days of her widowhood. I had no inkling that I would be following her down the path of widowhood. Her book was a key book in those very dark days after I had lost my wife to cancer. Her writing helped me to articulate my grief and helped me realise I was not alone. Here is one reading from the book:

    I keep looking back at these recent days, wondering. Unreality wraps them round like a tent. It encloses me in artificial darkness. Unlike the sky, there is no twilight; I see no pinprick stars. The hymns and Scriptures we have chosen for the funeral seem fitting, but somehow abstract.

    I am a widow, a social symbol, my face smiling to the family, my friends, with a sharp superficial brightness that glares like an unshielded light bulb. I am alone, but I cannot cry. Where is God when I need him? . . . I am feeling buried alive in my own emotional emptiness. (167)

    Of course the primary book of my life is the Bible. It is God’s chosen medium to speak to us. At key points of my life, God has spoken to me through the Bible in very specific ways; though all study of the Bible will allow us to hear His voice and to see His heart. All disciples of Jesus should be committed to an ongoing study of the Bible. The Living Word speaks to us through the Bible, the Written Word. But I think disciples of Jesus should read books apart from the Scriptures. Indeed, followers of Jesus should also be committed to an ongoing study of all sorts of good books. The Bible is our central book, but God speaks to us in a variety of ways and books often give flesh to the truths in the Bible. The right book at the right time is a burning bush where we encounter God, and that could be an encounter that saves our lives.

    Taking the Time Crunch Seriously

    Taking the Time Crunch Seriously

    Recently the WHO officially recognised “workplace burnout” as a workplace phenomenon. Defined as a state of “vital exhaustion…burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed…”. Many of us shake our...

    read more
    Book Review: The Pattern

    Book Review: The Pattern

    Authored by Dev Menon I am usually sceptical about Christian books on dating, romantic relationships and marriage as I feel that a lot of the material out there is either heavily influenced by secular philosophy and feel-good advice or, on the other extreme, imposes...

    read more
    Almost Enoch

    Almost Enoch

    Eric passed away in the early hours of May 27, 2019. He was supposed to have passed away five years earlier. Eric, cousin of Michael, Bernice’s first husband, had been fighting renal failure for a long time. Five years ago, he refused to start receiving dialysis....

    read more
    Editor’s Review: An Owl’s Journey

    Editor’s Review: An Owl’s Journey

    Whether as a co-labourer in Christ, a recipient of his ministry, or as his friend, the writers of this festschrift are united in their honour and high regard for Pastor David Wong. Each writer addresses the area in which his/her and Pastor David’s interests intersect....

    read more
    Book Review: The Plate Spinner

    Book Review: The Plate Spinner

    Authored by Dev Menon In a busy and hectic society like Singapore, one word that everyone, from primary school students to working adults, all long for is “time”. We give excuses that we have no time, we say, “I need more time” or “I got not enough time” (pardon the...

    read more