You are what you read

Jeniri holding up one of his favourite books — ‘The Rising Moon: Political Change in Sarawak’ by Michael Leigh. Photos: Mohd Alif Noni

There is a myriad of things that can be collected — postage stamps, vintage coins, rare plant breeds, antique furniture, and the list goes on. There is also a variety of reasons why people collect things. For some, these items can have great personal significance while for others, it is the thrill of discovering rare and unique objects to add to their prized collection.

Jeniri in his personal library.

In the case of former lecturer, political analyst and author Dr Jeniri Amir, it is his love for books, reading and knowledge that inspired the creation of his very own personal library — perhaps one of the largest of its kind in Sarawak. 

He has dedicated an entire room for his cornucopia of books, numbering around 11,000 and amassed over almost four decades. The books are sectioned according to genre and lined neatly on rows of shelves, reminiscent of an actual public library.

According to him, 70 percent of his collection is in English, while 20 percent is in Malay and the remaining 10 percent is in Indonesian.

“Books have really changed my life’s journey and the way I see things, and they enhanced my integrity in terms of knowledge,” he told New Sarawak Tribune during a recent interview and visit to his personal library.

How it all began

Jeniri holding up one of his books.

Jeniri candidly revealed that he had picked up the reading habit a little late. He started reading more when he was in lower secondary school, visiting the local public library to read novels.

“There were no books, no good role models to inspire reading. I still remember most of the households in my kampung did not have books as they were poor,” he said.

However, it was when he entered university that the habit flourished.

“I was inspired because there were many writers in my university. My lecturers were top writers in Malaysia. Besides that, there was greater exposure to literature,” he explained.

It was also during his university years that Jeniri’s book collection began. With amusement, he recalled that he used to collect books that his coursemates had discarded at the end of the semesters and exams.

From there, there was no looking back and his collection was born.

“I started with literature because my first discipline was Literature and History. Then, it developed into various fields along the way over the last 40 years, such as media communications, political communications, journalism, writing, biographies, social sciences, humanities and so on,” he said.

For the love of knowledge

Jeniri in his personal library.

“People say that you are what you eat. To me, you are what you read,” remarked Jeniri. 

To him, reading is a part of his daily life. He reads an average of eight books a month, not including the magazines and eight news portals he peruses every day.

“None of my days passes by without reading. I become restless if I don’t read,” he said.

There are numerous reasons why Jeniri loves reading; they range from gaining knowledge, gratification and satisfaction to filling his time in a meaningful way. Reading, he said, not only improves one’s analytical skills but also the depth of knowledge — opening different horizons and perspectives on issues while enhancing expression and language skills.

“In short, I read for the love of knowledge and new findings. Your own mind can be a prison if you don’t read books and the worst thing is to be trapped in your mind prison. So, to me, the key to unlock it is books,” he said.

When speaking of his favourite genres, Jeniri mentioned history (particularly Sarawak’s history), political communications and biographies.

One of his favourite titles is “The Rising Moon: Political Change in Sarawak” by Michael Leigh. He said that it was about politics in the 1960s and 1970s in Sarawak — a must-read for those who wished to know more about Sarawak’s political landscape.

Although Jeniri reads fiction and novels occasionally, he is more inclined to non-fiction. He estimated that for each fiction book read, he read nine non-fiction books. According to him, fictions are for appreciating the beauty of language and literary elements, while non-fictions are more for gaining wisdom and knowledge. 

“If I am in my element, I can read four books in a day, or about 1,000 pages, by speed-reading,” he said, revealing that during the movement control order (MCO) he read about 70 books.

He discouraged reading only materials and articles from the internet, which could be tempting in this digital age. He emphasised that books could not be rivalled in terms of depth and completeness of knowledge.

“There is no complete book. If you want to be really good, for example, in speech-writing, you need to try to read all the books on speech-writing to become an expert in the field,” he said.

This era has also seen the rise of the e-book format, but between conventional printed books and e-books, Jeniri prefers the former. He explained that with ink-and-paper books, he could feel the physical form, underline words and phrases, and flip through the pages more easily.

But of course, under certain circumstances, he said he would purchase e-books if he wanted to get a book quickly.

“For instance, when the Covid-19 pandemic started, I ordered two e-books about the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. We need to study the history to better understand the present and the future, including about sickness and viruses so that we know what we are supposed to do,” said Jeniri.

He acknowledged that he never read some books that he purchased. Some would only be read 20 to 30 years after purchase while others would be more for reference. There were also some that he would read multiple times.

“But of course, I have already read most of the books I bought,” he said.

To Jeniri, price is never a deciding factor when purchasing as it is the quality, knowledge and usefulness of a book that matter.

Jeniri in his personal library.

Not just a reader but a writer as well

Jeniri is not only an avid reader but a prolific author as well, having written about 50 books thus far. He identified his strengths as biographies, media, journalism and politics.

Among the biographies he authored is one on Tun Abang Openg Abang Sapiee, the first Governor of Sarawak and also father of current Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg.

Jeniri has also penned the biographies ‘Datu Bandar Abang Hj. Mustapha: Freedom Fighter for the Independence of Sarawak Within Malaysia’ and ‘Rosli Dhoby: Merdeka Dengan Darah’.

He said that when writing a book, one had to conduct thorough research and read extensively on the subject matter. When writing the biography on Rosli Dhoby, he revealed that he went to London, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Sibu to read all the history books related to Rosli Dhoby.

“I found a lot of good documents in the National Archives in London, including minutes of meetings, letters, and so on. It was just like finding gold in a gold mine,” he added.

Jeniri said that it was better to share what was gained from reading with others, be it through discussions, reviews or by writing books.

“If you find that you want to read a certain book about a subject matter but it’s not available on the market, it shows that there is an opportunity for you to write one,” he said.

Time flies when you’re surrounded by books

Unfortunately, Kuching, or Sarawak for that matter, lacks a good bookshop with an extensive selection.

As such, Jeniri said that he obtained most of his books by visiting bookshops in Kuala Lumpur or overseas as well as book fairs. He said he also ordered books online from Amazon.

He recalled going to a book fair in Kuala Lumpur some time in 2004, where he spent 12 days from morning until night.  

“The selections were very good. Book fairs are great for collecting the best reference books in your field. As a lecturer, you need to keep up with the latest research,” he said.

Jeniri also shared one of his experiences of visiting Kinokuniya, a well-known bookstore chain, where he had once spent five hours without realising it.

Advice for new readers

For those who may be interested in picking up the habit of reading, Jeniri’s simple advice is, “Pick something that is of interest to you.

“Always have books with you and whenever you have some time — be it five or ten minutes — just flip through the book and you will get hooked. Once you get hooked, there is no turning back.”

He advised that there were no shortcuts to knowledge and language. Instead, quality books had to be read in one’s field of interest.

As he humorously puts it, the only risk in reading is potential hair loss.

“I read a lot of books when I was doing my PhD, and within that year, all of this was gone,” he said with a chuckle, pointing to his hair.

“But I’d rather have no hair than no knowledge and no books,” remarked Jeniri.

Asked what will happen to his collection of books in the future, he said he had not yet decided whether to keep them or donate them to certain institutions.