Reading as escapism?

January 2, 2010

There were books at Changi; thousands of them.  One source was Singapore library the contents of which had been trucked to the camp after the Japanese had been persuaded that plenty of reading would divert the prisoners’ attention from thoughts of escape.  This must have led to a good deal of bemusement about whether reading was or was not to be encouraged as an escapist activity; a delightful linguistic conundrum that was presubably lost on the Japanese.

Christmas Day 1942 found my father in Roberts Hospital enjoying Ethel Boileu’s Arches of the Years.  But on the whole his taste was in non-fiction.  Even then it was highly eclectic including (at least in the early months of captivity) textbooks on anatomy and physiology, British government circulars on food preservation and various works on world affairs.

Sometimes he simply made lists of books to be tracked down in the future, presumably from citations he ran across in his current reading.  For example, pages 488 and 489 of his first Changi notebook include references to Frowhawk’s A Natural History of Butterflies, Muir’s Mother India, Clegg’s War-time Health and Democracy, Greenwood’s Love on the Dole, Imms’ Recent Advances in Entomology and Cox’s The Chemical Analysis of Foods, among others.

Quite often he made elaborate notes on what he read, as in the illustrated page on the Public Health (Imported Food) Regulations of 1937.  Sometimes he wrote out lengthy passages verbatim. In such instances he was no doubt trying to capture as much detail as he could for future reference.  But it was a laborious method he had also adopted in his pre-war notebooks.  No doubt he found refuge in the elaborate note taking; at the very least it would have filled up a considerable amount of time.

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