I have lived recently in Manila and Bangkok and, as part of the natural immersion in food and culture, I discovered various new books and films (and was reacquainted with some old ones). I had always been interested in classical books (like anyone, I am innately curious about those things that have lasted) as well as Asian films, in particular older ones—some of my favourite films are by Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, and Ozu (and to name recent ones would run the gamut from Aamir Khan films to Audition and In The Mood For Love, though in my view the latter two overstay their welcomes…).
Most Filipinos, from my albeit limited conversations, revere José Rizal as a good writer that they are instructed (both at school and in society) to read, yet they will say that they prefer fellow revolutionary Andrés Bonifacio as a man of action and, to be honest—as many students will say of Shakespeare—they did not get round to reading Rizal in full or at all.
The book is long, I grant you that—and that is why I have written a translation with an introduction and notes that is also shorter—and it is a romance in an (at least in parts) old-fashioned style, but it is esteemed as a classic book not without good reason.
It is because it is well-written (along with his second book, El Filibusterismo) that Rizal formed an important part of the Phillipine revolution. It is a great book, and long and occasionally melodramatic, as many great books are. Twitter, TV, and the web appears to be transforming many people into consumers that cannot handle a long book, which is sad—but it is reversible.
My interest in Rizal lead me on a tangent to revisit Confucius—see my introductions in The Complete Confucius and The Analects—as well as Lao Tzu, Sun Tzu, The Thousand and One Nights, and the classics of ancient Chinese literature (the Four Great Classical Novels, of which Dream of the Red Chamber is my favourite, and the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism). Perhaps these books are not to everyone’s taste, as tastes are always changing, but for those with an interest in history, language, storytelling, and philosophy, they are a priority that is becoming increasingly abandoned due to distractions.
In Thailand, there was a considerable language barrier. The country’s epic, Ramakien, forms a part of the great Hindu epic, Ramayana. It may not surprise you to learn that (in English) this is also a difficult read. And so I was unable to read much by Thailand’s authors, old or new. There are so many musical artists, filmmakers, authors, and visual artists vying for attention, that the amount of great work remaining unseen (by us or the majority) is just staggering. I hope, as I grow older, to do better in this regard and experience many new voices from around a diverse and increasingly connected world.