It was late afternoon when I noticed you outside a newsagent in Siem Reap. Your crisp cream jacket conspicuous amid a predominance of dull and rumpled others. You exuded a cool elegance as if hoping to revive a day grown weary by its own heat and humidity. I stood for several minutes, idly scanning the reading material one rack over, before making my way towards you. As I drew closer it struck me just how familiar you seemed, and for a moment I thought you might be that old friend I hadn’t seen in a while; your features alike in many ways. But you weren’t of course. And once together, seated in a quiet corner, I saw you were much younger. Nevertheless, you were full of charm, vibrancy and the provocativeness of youth as you unfolded stories, offered opinions and poeticised about the Mekong region you love.
I’m home now but I have not forgotten you. Did you know I kept your jacket—the one you were wearing when we met—it hangs where I can see it and every so often I take it from its hanger, open it and smile, as your stories tumble out. In truth, I keep expecting to catch sight of you sporting a new jacket and brimming with fresh stories. Last weekend I looked out for you in Scorpio Books, but you weren’t there. So, for now, when I want to know what you’ve been thinking and writing about, I must content myself with ethereal you. Call me fussy, call me old fashioned but I much prefer you in the flesh.
What could be better than chocolates, even better than flowers or perhaps breakfast in bed on Mother’s Day?
When, part way through Mother’s Day brunch, your sixteen-year-old son enthusiastically suggests that you could be the next Dr Who!
As I, along with the rest of my travel-weary family and the multitudes of other similarly afflicted passengers inched our way towards a Customs Officer at Auckland International airport, my thoughts necessarily drifted to another long-ago passenger, Oscar Wilde, who on arrival at the New York Custom House, is said to have uttered, “I have nothing to declare except my genius”. Likely, amid this throng of humanity, were ‘remain’ and non-Trump voters, who, on arrival at the customs desk, might reasonably echo this 19th century sound bite. Whereas, I had nothing to declare but my waywardness. Evidence of which—one hardback and one paperback—lay concealed in my suitcase.
In truth, it wasn’t that I’d fallen off the wagon, but rather, stepped off it briefly to save a couple of books in imminent danger. Let me explain. We were holidaying in Cambodia and naturally, added to the ‘to see and do’ list was, ‘find bookshop(s)’. Finding them was not difficult. In fact, I discovered two fine Phnom Penh bookshops—D’s Books and Bohr’s Books—near our hotel.
What did prove difficult was comprehending the reality of what I’d found. Book-selling in Cambodia is not for the faint-hearted. Thanks to unrelenting humidity—even in January relative humidity seldom drops below 41% and can reach as high as 99%—Cambodian booksellers must contend with, what Andrew Lang once described as, “the first great foe” of books, damp. And, despite seemingly excellent air circulation in addition to overhead fans and air conditioners, its destructive presence—foxing in particular—was all too evident. So, if you’re in Cambodia spare a thought for these tenacious book-folk and please do buy some books.
How I see my books has always been a view through rose-coloured glasses. The imaginative lens that overlooks the rising tide of books and frequently underestimates the depth relative to my reading strength. That conceives of beginning a secret bookshop—think Brazenhead Books with better amenities—Front Room Books, a deliciously acceptable front for further acquisitions. So, buoyant and bespectacled, I remind Ali, “You can never have too many books”.
Looking back it was inevitable really. Loss of buoyancy and glasses, a direct consequence of lugging twenty-two boxes of books single-handedly from the basement. And it was, as I reached for a towel to halt the twenty-two rivulets of sweat coursing down my face that I began to wonder if I might indeed be sinking in this sea of books.
Which brings me to what I’ve been doing lately. Counting and cataloguing the sea of books; reminiscing with those into which I’ve dipped and dived, while shamefacedly confessing to others that I’m still dithering at their pages edge.
I have unwittingly, it would seem held an audit of my reading. And so, faced with the evidence that unbridled book acquisition does in fact interfere with actual reading, I have resolved that 2017 will be a year of determined reading and book-buying abstinence.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
“That trumpery hope which lets us dupe ourselves” OED
“Even the soul most heroically endowed with firmness cannot maintain a consciousness of inward worth when such a consciousness can find no external basis of support”
Simone Weil 1909-1943
I read recently, in the magazine supplement of our weekend paper that books are back. Great. So are mine. Back on their shelves after a five-year, earthquake-enforced slumber. In fact I had just lifted the last box of them from our basement that very weekend. But what, if anything, did it mean to have books back. That finally, normal transmission had been resumed? It certainly felt that way to me. For the record, my books are like family—entertaining and exasperating in equal measure—but they’ve always been there even if I’m distracted and forget to stay in touch. So perhaps it is us, rather than books, that are back. Back in touch with print culture and the tangible trafficking in books. Because, according to the story I was reading, across New Zealand independent booksellers, both established and fledgling, are happily holding their own, amid a culture still awash and in thrall, with all things digital.
As if this news alone might not convince me, Ali, waving her latest issue of Next magazine in my general direction, called out “take a look at this, they’ve got a book-vending machine in Singapore.” And so I also read that earlier this year, not one but two book-vending machines had materialised in the city. Although apparently common in Japan, the book vending machines are a first for Singapore. Inspired by Allen Lane’s 1937 Penguincubator, Kenny Leck, owner of BooksActually, installed the two S$9,900 machines—a third is in the pipeline—with a Capability Development grant from Spring Singapore. Each book vending machine houses between 150-200 books—with an emphasis on Singaporean writers—and thanks to a collaboration with local artists and illustrators, each machine wears its own metaphorical dust jacket. One resides at the National Museum, the other you’ll find on Orchard Rd at the Visitor Centre and the Goodman Arts Centre will be home to the third. But, not unlike a mobile library, the book vending machines will be peripatetic, moving location around Singapore every three months.
On my desk is one of my favourite New Yorker covers, Shelved by Roz Chast. It shows a solitary figure—perhaps you, perhaps me—hooked up to our modern day life support systems, yet all the while unconscious of the life in books that surround us. Maybe we’re finally waking up.