Readers find Big Read Meet intellectually stimulating

Readers celebrating The Big Read Meet's second anniversary on July 29. Cutting the cake are (from left) Madam Tina Wah, Mr George Tan, Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai, Ms Ong Min Yee, Mr Richard Sng and Ms Lee Mei Chuen.
Readers celebrating The Big Read Meet's second anniversary on July 29. Cutting the cake are (from left) Madam Tina Wah, Mr George Tan, Straits Times senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai, Ms Ong Min Yee, Mr Richard Sng and Ms Lee Mei Chuen. ST PHOTO: CHEW SENG KIM

Reader Tina Wah has been a regular at The Big Read Meet since 2013, but she has seldom spoken up at this non-fiction book club, which The Straits Times and the National Library Board (NLB) run every last Wednesday of the month.

That changed on Wednesday evening, when she poured her heart out about her lifelong struggle to clinch a degree.

That was after her fellow readers at the Meet pondered how far they were willing to go, and how much they were willing to forgo, for their dreams. These questions sprung from the book of the month titled Words Without Music, which is the autobiography of prolific American composer Philip Glass. In it, Glass wrote about how he drove taxis, fixed pipes and installed toilets for almost 20 years to survive while he pursued his dream of being the world's greatest composer.

Madam Wah, 61, told her fellow readers how her teachers "wrote her off" early on. At first, she recalled, she believed them and tried to be content with life as a wife and mother. "But somehow," she recalled, "I still wanted so much to have a degree."

She then shared how her son Jonathan Oh, 36, spurred her on to fulfil her dream. "He would sit by my side the way I used to sit with him when he was a young boy doing his homework and he taught me things like how to use a scientific calculator.

"With his help, at age 50, I graduated - with double degrees in finance and human resource management," she said, to resounding applause from her fellow readers.

That was a lovely segue into their celebration of the Meet's second anniversary last month. Thirty-five readers joined me in cutting a 3kg cake and singing Happy Birthday to their book club, which I moderate every month, and which kicked off on July 17, 2013 with 40 readers.

When I first told booksellers and bookworms here about its existence, quite a few among them questioned the viability of a club based on non-fiction reads, when time- strapped folk here rarely have time to leaf through even the hottest fiction.

The Meet, which is free and open to all, has since debunked such doubts. That is chiefly because its fans find the ideas championed in non-fiction books a good springboard towards sharing and learning from the life experiences of others. Among them is corporate trainer Richard Sng, 70, who says: "I find the sessions intellectually stimulating… the participants are not short of views and their ideas are quite profound, but they also let others speak and share. I get ideas from them for my own talks and courses."

There are now an average of 55 readers at every lively and laughter- filled Meet. Some of the tomes they have enjoyed tearing apart in recent months are The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert, The Future Of The Mind by Michio Kaku and Risk Savvy by Gerd Gigerenzer.

The Meet has also attracted eminent authors such as Asia experts Wang Gungwu and Ooi Kee Beng, former civil service chief Lim Siong Guan and American multimedia expert Margaret Heffernan to speak to readers. Their sessions drew full-house crowds of up to 180 people a session.

As a gauge of its impact, Mr Ian Yap, who is 42 and the NLB's deputy director of content and services for public library services, says: "The Big Read Meet is one of the more popular book clubs that NLB hosts, focusing on contemporary non-fiction titles. The sessions are wellattended and this helps in our efforts to build a reading nation."

Freelance writer Lee Mei Chuen, 52, who was at the first Meet and is now a regular, is also a member of NLB's Ethos and Heartlands book clubs. She says: "I find the Meet the most insightful and inspiring of all the clubs I attend as its discussions help me clarify what life is."

Business consultant George Tan, 67, gave perhaps the best toast to the Meet on Wednesday.

Asked if there was room for improvement after two years, Mr Tan, who is a former president of the high-IQ club Mensa Singapore, thought the Meet was fine the way it was. "I find it's a good way to spend a Wednesday evening and I really learn a lot from the views of others here."

He added: "By nature, I'm a VIP or Very Irritating Person. But here at The Big Read Meet, I'm treated like a VIP or Very Important Person."

•The next Big Read Meet is on Aug 26 at 6.30pm at Central Public Library at 100 Victoria Street. It will feature the people behind the best-selling official SG50 book, Living The Singapore Story. Sign up for it at any e-Kiosk in NLB branches or click on and follow the steps there.

•Living The Singapore Story is available at all bookstores here at $19.69 with GST. Words Without Music by Philip Glass is on sale at Books Kinokuniya for $47.95 with GST.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2015, with the headline 'Readers find Big Read Meet intellectually stimulating'. Print Edition | Subscribe