Saving My Library

Two and a half years ago, my library of approximately 1000 books was besieged by tiny insects. I woke up one morning to find miniscule, barely visible bugs crawling over the spines of my books, diving into the infinitesimal space in between pages like divers into the sea. Even now, the thought makes me shudder. These pests would grow into white, near transparent ant-like creatures native to the tropical island on which I then lived. I never learned their exact scientific names, but these insects brought about important changes.

I’ve always had a severe case of entomophobia – the irrational fear of insects that persists in spite of the knowledge of my ability to terminate them with ease. En masse, they are terror embodied. To tackle the invasion, I took time off work, and for 3 days and nights, with scarcely any sleep, I removed as many insects as I could, straining my eyesight to catch them in the hinges of the spines or in the crevices between pages. In Buddhist terms, this amounted to a form of massacre, and though I am not religious, the experience did prompt me to become a vegetarian – that was the first significant result of the infestation. Painstakingly, I bagged all the books individually in zip lock bags (according to book conservation websites and the local librarians, this is an effective way to limit the spread of the infestation), and sealed the bags with tape. All throughout the laborious process, I lived in fear and revulsion at the thought of these miniscule entities in close proximity to my skin. After packing all the books, I moved 300 of the most severely affected ones to the campus library of the university where I worked, and deposited them in a giant, industrial-grade freezer (apparently a necessary purchase for most major libraries in humid regions) where they stayed for 2 months in minus 40 degrees celsius – the extreme cold is the only thing that kills all insects, larva and eggs. The remaining books were frozen in my own freezer at regular intervals. For two and a half years, my books remained inside plastic bags, taken out only when needed, and frozen them in batches according to a set schedule. Now that I’m back in dry and temperate Canada, the books are gradually being taken out of their plastic shells, to breathe for the first time in so long and to be aired in the sunlight.

The memory of that frightful experience lingers. Aside from useful information about book preservation, the ordeal also made me rethink my relationship with books and reflect on what precisely they meant to me. Knowledge cannot be eaten away, of course, and I know that even if the worst had happened, I would have been able to re-purchase the majority – if not all – of the books. Yet the issue was never the recoverability of the same texts, but that my first encounter with Hardy, my signed copies with memories of Ishiguro book readings, the marginalia that bespeak fascination – these cannot be replaced. Many bibliophiles perhaps feel the same attachment to the volumes inscribed by experience. In many novels, I had the letter “M” written on the corners of pages, to indicate ideas that could be useful for a novel project. My copy of Rilke’s Letters are filled with dates and personal records in the margins, indicating instances where Rilke’s words offered solace during a time of grief. I collect books from my travels as well, and the library has several volumes inscribed with memories from visits to notable bookshops in various cities. There are also the pieces of ephemera, serendipitously discovered, or the lovingly written messages of dedication.

The infestation was a reminder of what I have and what I might lose. It also made clear that books are tactile objects even as they hold, between their covers, that which exists beyond physical form. The collecting of books also bespeaks a different kind of  growth. What I purchase at different stages in life trace shifts in intellectual inquiry and slight changes in taste. Each section in life seems to be mapped out by books, and many bibliophiles can surely draft an autobiography using books read and cherished. Claire Messud wrote that a personal library maps out one’s intellectual progress. It also maps personal growth. These particular volumes with their individual origin stories and idiosyncratic markings contribute to a more narratorial sense of self at a time when the construction of such narratives has become increasingly difficult in the age of the internet. I tried my best to save my books, but they had saved me first, from times of aloneness and distress. The trouble of dealing with the infestation, and the subsequent shipping of over 1000 volumes back home, had been worthwhile.

 

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Summer Readings

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After the long hiatus that was the academic year, it is time to revert back to a more contemplative self and engage in summer reading projects. In a recent New Yorker podcast, Kathryn Schulz and James Wood pointed out that when it comes to summer readings, most people inevitably turn to fiction. Perhaps there is something about a warm day on the beach that inspires us to lose ourselves in an engaging narrative. One summer, a few years ago, I finished Bonjour Tristesse on a beach in Nice – that remains one of my most treasured reading memories.The summer always sends me dreaming of stories set in southern France or Italy, something with the magic of Bonjour Tristesse or A Room with a View, something away from the rains of England. This year I’m opting for Tender is a Night, which has been on my list for several years, and A Pale View of Hills. But aside from the Fitzgerald and Ishiguro, almost everything else is nonfiction. With the exception of short stories in Granta, the New Yorker and the Paris Review, my reading list is dominated by a diverse range of nonfiction titles, from works of ekphrasis to travel books. One does not need a fictional narrative to lose oneself in the world of the written text.

On the Modern Bookshop

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Tucked away in the affluent neighborhood of Daikanyama, in Tokyo, is Tsutaya Books, a design gem and book emporium that frequently features on lists of the best bookshops in the world. Large glass panels and white, woven facades distinguish the three-pavilion complex that houses a diverse range of books (in Japanese and English), plus an upscale restaurant, a Starbucks, and a travel concierge in the travel books section. There is no denying the pleasure of walking through the gleaming spaces, or of sitting at a large wooden desk with a view of the majestic trees outside the floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The space spelled perfection – no dust, no insects, no stray books displaced. Being a bibliophile, bookshops are my natural habitat, but there was something jarring about Tsutaya. From the cafe to the design section, Tsutaya was mainly frequented by the trendy and wealthy customers who reside in the neighborhood. With the exception of a few arts students, it was difficult to spot someone who did not carry a luxury bag. Setting aside the affluence of Daikanyama as a contributing factor, I wondered whether the glamorization of reading, coupled with the commercialization of the modern bookshop, does not ironically spell the end of the book.

I grew up in the vicinity of a modern bookshop, and it provided much-needed sanctuary during adolescent years of existential confusion. That branch of Chapter’s (a chain of bookstores in Canada) was the place where I collected cheap paperback copies of classics, discovered contemporary prize-winners, and honed the art of book collecting. It was not a luxurious place, though modern, and on most Friday evenings, it was mainly filled with  students, bookworms or those looking for a birthday card. The shop will be closed at the end of the month, and its demise – alongside the demise of numerous similar establishments – signals the end of an era in the history of the bookshop. North American chains, such as Barnes & Nobles, probably occupy a space between the cozy, ever so slightly dilapidated secondhand shops of Europe and the grand, luxurious bookshops like Tsutaya. Perhaps glamorization is an effective marketing scheme, and by rendering the act of reading chic and sexy, bookshops not only hope to sell more books but also to encourage reading. Perhaps. At Eslite, a grand bookstore in Taipei (with chains in other Asian countries), I once came across a book signing event, in which an author encouraged young people to become novelists because it is now fashionable; true to the spirit of his book, many readers in attendance carried Prada bags and scrawled notes on the newest iPads. In many cafes in Taipei, there are piles of English books sitting in corners, by the window, or used to enhance the look of certain products. Vintage books have become fetish objects, and the bookworm is no longer a denigrated character, but a persona that many willingly assume, while relaxing in a gorgeous space decorated with books.

The linking of literature with fashion can be damaging to the former, much like the rising practice of giving students monetary reward for every book read – the surface reward (whether it’s $5 or a glamorous public image) erodes the intrinsic value of reading. We need to not just read, but to be seen reading. The spectacle of the reader means that the act of reading, and not just the physical books themselves, has been completely consumed by the market, like all the other arts. While shops like Tsutaya were founded with the ideal of resisting the advent of digital media, I wonder if they’re not as detrimental to reading as Facebook and tablets, if not more so. British novelist Will Self recently published a verbose panegyric on the death of literary fiction, and he points out how ‘The hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestation’. When the culture of reading (and concomitantly, writing) becomes saturated with glamor, ruled by trends, it will be purely a matter of easy, fast consumption, without difficulties or complications, much like fashion. This process has already begun, of course – no other cultural conditions could have allowed for the flourishing of Fifty Shades of Grey. In an age of intellectual laxity, it is no wonder that books (particularly difficult ones that will not be read) have been reduced to merely decorative objects or status symbols in so many places in the world. When I see vintage Penguin paperbacks and literary paraphernalia such as fountain pens – which are now extremely popular outside western culture – I feel a sense of sadness, despite my ardent love for these objects, because they are remnants of a time that is no more. In an era where solitary reading, deep thought and intellectual engagement are unfashionable, what could such objects be except consumerist trends and empty signifiers pointing to a vacuous beyond?

So, the luxury bookshops, for all their convenience and beauty, will never replace their precursors. Of course bookshops are necessarily commercial spaces, but they should also be spaces for thinking, for imaginary journeys, for serendipitous encounters with that perfect sentence. Perhaps there are some similarities between the luxury bookshop and virtual spaces that encourage bibliophilia and reading. The newly launched My Independent Bookshop, backed by Penguin, allows bookworms to create their own ‘gateway to brand new worlds’. While choosing books for one’s own shop and choosing the ‘wallpaper’ can be quite fun, it is also a bit unnerving, since this is a shop that one can never enter, pages that one can never touch. But for every book bought, a percentage of the sale goes to a local, independent bookshop, so the website is linked to the spaces of real bookshops.

There is something about luxury bookshops that, like the virtual one, feels slightly removed from the physical, humble, and highly subjective experience of reading. Perhaps that sense of the unreal stems from the shop’s seeming perfection, or from the fact that many books (in shops such as Eslite) are wrapped in plastic to protect them from dust and humidity, thus rendering browsing impossible. Jean-Luc Nancy provides superb descriptions of the bookshop experience in his On the Commerce of Thinking: On Books and Bookstores –

‘[The reader in a bookstore] doesn’t devour, but tastes, inhales, sniffs, or licks the substance. The bookstore is a perfumery, rotisserie, patisserie: a dispensary of scents and flavours through which something like a fragrance or bouquet of the book is divined, presumed, sensed. It is where one gives oneself or finds an idea of the book’s Idea, a sketch, an illusion, a suggestion. Perhaps it speaks of what one was looking for, what one was hoping for.’

Nancy recognises the full sensory, even sensual, experience of the bookshop. And the scent of books beckons the bibliophile forward. Nothing smells as intoxicating as a secondhand bookstore, the scent that floods the mind with memories and an ardent sense of curiosity.

‘Even touching books communicates to the reader particular impressions: the weight, grain, or suppleness through which one thinks one can discern the inflections of a voice or else the fluctuations of a heart.’

Wandering through narrow corridors lined with shelves or turning yellowed pages that carry the scent of ages – these are bookshop experiences that are rapidly becoming obsolete. I think of the old bookshops on Charing Cross Road; G. David in Cambridge; and Shakespeare & Co. in Paris – the places where we might ‘find anchorage in these thwarting currents of being […and] balance ourselves after the splendors and miseries of the streets’ (Virginia Woolf, ‘Street Haunting’). The complex spaces and shelves of these shops in a way mirror the Gutenberg mind, from the dust-covered corners of which something new or old always springs forth at the invitation of the familiar scent. I would gladly exchange designer armchairs and Starbucks coffee for such spaces again. It is not just the loss of beautiful vintage volumes that I mourn, but the loss of a solitary, internal life that is deeply entangled with reading, of life that leaps forth from words, of the infinitude of being and feeling suggested by the well-worn pile that accompanies the perpetual traveler.

Nancy says it best, and deserves to be quoted here in full:

‘For, in the end, the Idea of the book will always, from its very conception, have been the Idea of its reading, and through that reading, the Idea of another book, of another writing that continues on from the first […] In fact reading does not lead to more reading, but to everything else, to what is sometimes called action and sometimes experience, where we rub up against the illegible real.

All the same, it is only by always reading anew that one can discard books one by one. Throw them not on the pyre or into oblivion, but launch them further and more profoundly into what should, with just cause, be called the bookstore of the soul, the free space of a devouring of and by the pure Idea, the labyrinth of books that are read, jotted on, forgotten, and dust-covered, the books learned and forgotten by heart, the creasing of the edges of pages whose image always comes back because they contain certain precious words.’

 

On Being a Bibliophile

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After coming across a 2012 article by Julian Barnes, on life as a bibliophile, I felt compelled to record my own memories of book collecting and bibliophilia. I came to book collecting at a rather late age, sometime in my teens. Before that point, I had relied on library copies, none of which I can recall clearly, except for the copies of the adventures of Arsene Lupin, those yellow paperbacks that are now long gone; I always thought Lupin was much more brilliant than his rival, Sherlock Holmes. But sometime during my early teens, the local library in Vancouver began having these secondhand books sales, twice a year, in April and September. There, my bibliophilia bloomed. I discovered all sorts of vintage paperbacks and folio editions bound in leather, with embossed covers, all for incredibly cheap prices (no more than $3 each). There was an 1850 edition of poetry by Elizabeth Cook, whom I had never heard of; a collection of palm-sized, cream-coloured copies of Jane Austen’s works, from the early 1900s; a late 1800 copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which I can’t really read, because it’s so fragile. Before the days of book recommendation sites, these book sales were a fantastic way of learning about new titles or authors. So, I would go to the book sales with empty cardboard boxes and come back home with the boxes overflowing with precious finds. For the first time, I saw books not only as companions or sources of delight and knowledge, but beautiful objects to be coveted. Gone were the days of those Wordsworth editions (though I still keep those). It’s safe to say that soon, most of my allowance was spent on books; similarly, a bulk of my salary nowadays is dedicated to the cultivation of my bibliophilia.

It’s not unusual for people in the humanities, or academia more generally, to be obsessed with books. In fact, it’s probably a stereotype, one that I was happy to perpetuate. I became attached to certain copies and tried to hunt down out-of-print editions. These were not editions that were rare due to monetary value, but editions with specific cover designs or editions with which I associate certain memories. For example, for years I hunted for my own copies of a series of E. M. Forster’s complete works (published by the Quality Paperback Book Club of New York), simply because those editions were the ones I had used in the school library when I first encountered Forster; re-reading A Room with a View would not be the same without Corot’s picture of Florence on the cover and the familiar font on the pages. As Barnes writes, ‘To own a certain book – one you had chosen yourself – was to define yourself.’

During the early days of my book collecting, I was very careful with each volume, taking care not to crease the covers or bend the spines. But as my collecting progressed, I began to appreciate these signs of wear and tear; they were evidence of a book having been read, vestiges of the mornings spent in the company of that particular copy. This all probably sounds a bit obsessive, but as Benjamin suggests in his seminal essay, there’s very little that’s not obsessive about the collector.

My bibliophilia reached its heights during my years in London – predictably, given the many treasure troves that London has to offer the bibliophile. I roamed every secondhand book depository, from the basements at Charing Cross to the South Bank bookstall. I became particularly fond of vintage Penguin paperbacks, which were very accessible at £2 each – it’s very difficult to resist judging a book by its cover when I came across these lovely little volumes. I once had the great privilege of browsing through the private storage room of Skoob Books in Bloomsbury (they have the friendliest staff out of all the bookstores I’ve frequented), and found a few of the earliest Penguins. It was also there that I learned how stickers and other ephemera stuck on paperbacks, such as the half-torn tag on Lawrence’s Sea and Sardinia (below), make the book more valuable to collectors.

Ephemera became one of my top reasons for visiting secondhand bookshops – the Waterstone’s on Gower Street in Bloomsbury was a particularly bountiful shop in this regard, as many of the books in its secondhand section come stuffed with old ticket stubs, random notes from the 1960s, publisher’s notifications etc. These fragile pieces of paper are surprisingly among my most prized possessions. Their scent of time and their ephemerality are precisely what make them so alluring (the subject of another post). I once learned from the staff at Waterstone’s that an elderly gentleman would go into the shop every fortnight to hunt for vintage train tickets, and eventually the staff joined in the hunt and collected his tickets for him as soon as the new shipments came in. But one day he stopped coming into the shop, and they wondered what had happened to him.

Years of bookshop hopping have brought me some wonderful finds, such as a 12-volume set of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which I found in one of my favourite bookshops outside London – G. David in Cambridge, the old haunt of many writers including Forster and Virginia Woolf. Other great finds (some rather costly) include a Baedecker of Northern Italy from 1899 (which is kept next to the Forster); a remarkable atlas from 1932, when national boundaries were slightly different in various regions; first edition Faber pamphlets of ‘East Coker’ & ‘Little Gidding’ (I have yet to find the other two of the Four Quartets); and the 1832 Heath’s Picturesque Annual, my only book from the Romantic era. The collection will continue to grow. Each book collected defines a period in life as much as the books read during that period, and as such they are the best markers of time.

No Kindle, no matter how comprehensive or practical, can replace these individually selected volumes, carefully inscribed with the date and place of purchase. Unlike the eternally brand new Kindle edition that will never show any signs of age, these books have been passed down the generations, forming an invisible community of readers that have loved or hated the book, extracted wisdom from its pages or misunderstood its complexity. The underlined sentences and marginalia attest to the reading process in a way that electronic highlights cannot. Few activities are more intrinsically human than the reading of a book, for it is through books that human beings have first come to understand self and others.

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