When I read my favourite book for the first time, I was in Malacca, on holiday with my family. We had rented the top floor of a dim apartment by the shore, where it rained almost constantly. The sea pressed in through the windows and seeped in under the doors and squeezed itself through cracks in the walls.
At night I crept out of bed and trekked through this book under a yawning circle of light in the living room as the thunder grumbled to be heard over my father’s snoring. My sister slept on a mattress on the floor; the door was held closed by a leaning chair, because the lock was broken. In the black static of the falling rain I read with a ferocity that was like sobbing.
I remember all of this as well as I remember the book, the calm blue idyll of the cover persistently lying about peace and a happy ending; the pages which I swallowed as if I had been starved, reading on my stomach and then on my back and then my stomach again, my body aching with good reading.
Most things I own today have multiple functions, to help me streamline life. I have a Kindle, a laptop, a phone, all of which I can read on. So why books, still? Why books, really, when we have already done better and quicker and lighter?
I can download any book I want instead of ordering them to me across oceans in padded envelopes or requesting that they wait demurely, on hold, among library bookshelves.
A book is a book. Its singular purpose is, simply, to be read. It does not organise my day or notify me about train breakdowns or convey to me news about the Middle East. It has no other function. It is inert, almost romantic, outdated.
And yet—books, books. Even the word sounds like one falling to the floor or a hardcover slamming shut. A huge, hollow, heart-thud, like a giant walking.
When you are surrounded by stories, reality becomes a sleight of hand. Did I read this world, or did I dream it? Has everything that happened to me truly happened to me? On a screen, pixels recycle themselves over and over again on a lit surface, making it impossible to organise what you have just read, or the time and place where you read it. They are ephemeral, uncertain, untrustworthy, too often re-used in every other part of your life.
But books: they devote ink and paper, magnificently unnecessary real estate, to incremental moments of discovery. They are reassuring and inexplicable souvenirs, somehow one book for one story, like an algebra letter assigned a sole numerical value: one book, read here, for the first time, at this point in my life. Here, this crumpled corner, where I wept. Here, this line at the bottom, a signpost for laughter. Here, the cover water-warped, because I had been caught in the rain. They’re ticket stubs to Chihiro’s spirit train, absurdly mundane, stamped with a time and a date, even as the stories themselves swirl, rise, ebb throughout my life.
This one I bought from a seaside town and carried with me for thirty days in the bottom of my bag.
This one I woke up at 6 am to queue for, and read over a chicken pie and a cup of tea as the sun rose.
This one I lent to a friend, and received in return with a dark tea-stain over two of its pages.
Who was I when I read this?
When I run my palm across the spines of my books, I am grazing a library of older selves.
Books: they’re semaphores in our hands, signal flares. I see someone reading a book that I love, and I love her. They’re pets, children, flowerbeds. I find copies of my favourite books homeless in secondhand bookshops and I buy them, compulsively. I can’t leave them there, abandoned and unread.
There’s something about books that’s slyly sentient, half-alive, almost threatening. I remember that people war and love and die over their contents.
Books are evidence that reading is a sensory activity, a physical one, a reminder that I am mortally housed in a body which laughs and weeps and anticipates and dreads. That the ache in my throat is connected to the ache in my fingers, that time is remembered only when I raise my eyes to the clock, that books must be carried or put aside when I reach my stop, my bag poking impractical angles into my hip.
What were the loose cursives of our open hands made for, if not for holding a book? Or why the angle of the insides of our elbows and forearms made perpendicular, if not for cradling books?
Books give me the ability to physically grip—and pretend I can master—the things that require living to learn: love and death, grief and joy.
My room burrs and bristles with everything. My room blossoms with books. They sit shelved or in stacks or in boxes or balanced by my bed, over my sleeping head. They are wrapped in plastic or thoughtlessly creased, bought fresh or bought yellowed, dog-eared and unkempt. Some I have read many times, some only once, and some I will never open at all.
They are the confirmation of all I know, and the reassurance of all that I have yet to learn.
/ published in the supplement to I Have a Room With Everything Too, an exhibition of 200 rare print and design books in Singapore. The Substation, until 12 July, 12 pm – 8 pm.