By Joyce Gan
I KNEW I had found Father Alfred Chan's office when I saw the thousands of books - books squeezed in floor-to-ceiling bookshelves that lined the office walls; books on the desk; and books covering much of the floor, leaving space for only his desk and a couple of chairs, and a path for a person to move along.
CatholicNews had been informed that Father Alfred had an impressive collection of 7,000 books and we were curious to see the collection. Is it true that he has 7,000 books? I asked Father.
"Of course not!" he said, giving me an incredulous look. "What you see here [in this office] is only one-third of what I have," he explained. "I have about 20,000 books in my collection!"
The rest of the 20,000 books were in his bedroom and the toilet where he had built bookshelves. The collection, made over 40 years, comprise fiction and non-fiction, books about plants and animals, books on nonya culture, comics and illustrated books, books in Chinese and Malay, and, naturally, books on philosophy and religion. He has not read every book from cover to cover, but every one of them is a reference source.
"I find books very useful for my preaching," Father Alfred said. He loves literature and poetry too because he can extract quotes from them for his sermons.
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Father Alfred Chan, Assistant Priest at Church of St. Bernadette shares his passion for reading and collecting books, a love he has nurtured for the last four decades.
"It's the way the author expresses himself through various aspects of life that touch me," Father Alfred explained. "If I can connect them to my sermons, I deliver it. One good thing about me is that I remember quotations after reading them."
Father Alfred is particularly fond of children's fables and folklores, which, he said, all have adult messages in them. Most importantly, "they tell you the truth", he added. "The Little Prince" by Antoine de Saint-Exupery and "The Velveteen Rabbit" by Margery Williams are two of his favourite books and he even uses them to teach.
He believes in bibliotherapy, a form of psychotherapy in which carefully selected reading materials are used to help a person to solve a personal problem or for therapeutic purposes. There are many lessons to be learnt from books, he said. "This book therapy is for people in different situations in life," he explained. For example, "The Lives of Saints" not only helps him preach, the stories inspire him in his life too.
A collection of books on the lives of many great men and how they became great through their hard work and perseverance, by Samuel Smiles, are among his favourites.
"After I read a great book, I feel elated and want to try to imitate a portion of the [good values] in that book," Father Alfred said enthusiastically.
This love of good books and a passion to share them with others sometimes lead him to buy more than one copy of a title. He personally buys two copies of "a good book" and 20-30 copies of a "very good book" so he can give them away. There is one "great book" he cherishes, "How to Read a Book" - which he bought 400 copies of.
"Now I'm left with only one to two!" he exclaimed. "I give books in the hope that someday those I give them to will step into a bookshop (and cultivate the love for reading)."
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Father Alfred started really reading only when he was 17 and it was not until he was 22 and in the seminary that he started reading seriously. He has not stopped since.
He goes to Borders and Kinokuniya, as well as secondhand bookshops every week, browsing through Christian books mostly. Sometimes, he asks friends going overseas to buy books he is looking for. When overseas he would buy books.
"Each city I go to, I try to buy one good book and then I'll write down the name of that town or city in my book for keepsake," he recalled. He has not travelled much since a stroke four years ago when he was teaching at the seminary.
That day, overcome by exhaustion, he slept for 30 hours straight. When he awoke, he knew something was amiss and called for then-seminarian, Father Valerian Cheong, to send him to the hospital. There, he was told that he had suffered a stroke, one that he should have died from after five hours of sleep.
He was transferred to Church of St. Bernadette after his recovery because it is the only parish in Singapore that requires little or virtually no climbing of steps.
"Thank God I didn't lose my sense of speech," Father Alfred said in gratitude. Although no longer very mobile, he is happy that he can still be active, and attends St. Vincent de Paul meetings, Bible classes, Taize prayers, catechism classes and RCIA.
"I don't feel tired at all. I can work and work," he said.
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Another consolation is that he has his books for company. The joy this brings him was clearly shown when he took me for a tour of his room. Shelves lined the room, leaving space only for his bed. He sleeps surrounded by his favourite books.
In his collection are 40 editions of St. Augustine's "Confessions" and a 60-volume "Great Books of the Western World".
Other favourites are: "Walden" by Henry David Thoreau, "Books of great men in history" by Samuel Smiles, "Les Miserables" by Victor Hugo, and "Don Quixote" by Cervantes.
He is now reading "The Monk and the Book" by Megan Hale Williams about how St. Jerome translated the Bible from Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic into Latin.
He shared how saddened he is when he goes house-blessing and sees all the beautiful ornaments on display but no books. "Even if there are, they are only in the bedrooms whereas books should be on display in halls, for people to see and read!" he exclaimed. Will he ever sell his books?
"If someone makes me an offer to buy my books, I will look him in the face and say, 'No.' because these books are all painfully searched for. I walked for miles and miles in London, Bostonâ€¦ to find them," he said.
How about loaning books?
"I'm most scared if people want to borrow my books!" he admitted. "Books are hard to part with because I've got personal writings and annotations in it." Father Alfred has collected three volumes of quotations, gleaned from his books over the years, and might publish them someday so that others might enjoy and benefit from the words and thoughts of wise men, and his labour of love.