Sunday October 21, 2012
Keeping books alive
By ABBY WONG
Let’s make a pact to ensure the longevity of the printed word, urges this bookworm who took a book along when she said her wedding vows.
RECENTLY at lunch in Kuala Lumpur, a book-loving friend whose fingers have been smoothed by years of page-thumbing, showed off the little e-library he had built on his iPad. It’s not a new thing, having a virtual library on an electronic device ... but his beaming face has never been so radiant.
I squeaked, though I wished to squawk, “I thought we had a pact to love printed books forever!” He still does, he says, but to him, reading from an iPad is as enjoyable as turning printed pages.
“See how the screen flips just like the pages of a book?” he zealously went on, demonstrating with page after page the miraculous sight of a screen with a page-turning effect. As he leaned closer, I tried in vain to sniff out the bookish aroma that once so naturally emanated from him. Sniff. Nothing. Sniff, sniff. There was nothing but the smell of something metallic, Styrofoam, and aluminium.
The steaming prawn dumplings on the table were left to grow cold while he read out David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and I obstinately went on secretly sniffing.
But really, I shouldn’t lament my friend’s enthusiasm. He is, after all, a geek working in the ultra-advanced field of telecommunications. But the fact that he is a technocrat who loves reading printed books makes it hard to accept the impending switch. He is a rarity.
Sigh. The truth is hard to take, but sometimes we suffer for the things we hold dear. Anyhow, I mustn’t mourn my failure to bottle my dear friend’s bookish smell or worry about the threats traditional books are facing. It is only logical for e-books to thrive in the present age of technology. But lest we have to pay a devil in the future to bring back an invention that has so profoundly and profusely changed our lives, let’s get into a feverish groove to keep traditional books alive so they can coexist with their digital counterparts.
But before the practical tips, here’s the sentimental quote: “There isn’t anything distinctive in the smell, size, shape or feel of the e-book you’re buying. Soon, when all books exist in electronic media, there will be no nostalgia in seeing a book any longer.”
Indeed, the scent of physical books and the sight of book covers can conjure up memories of a Sunday morning spent reading in bed, an exotic vacation with plenty of reading by a swimming pool, or lonely moments when all one has is a book and rain pattering away on the windowsill and refusing to grant companionship. And those trips to the bookstore on lazy Saturdays will always remain in our minds, and each of those is a moment of ease that is so hard to come by in this increasingly stressful world.
Hence, the soothing musty smell of printed books must continue to soothe, and those little corners in the bookstores must remain like little pit stops of momentary relief and sanity.
Here’s what we need to do.
Let books come out of their skin. And with this I mean for bookstores to unwrap all books so as to allow readers to feel, smell, browse through and, potentially, buy them. Don’t make your store as solemn as a museum and your store assistants as neurotic as the curators, for by doing so you are pushing books into antiquity. Instead, be intentionally bustling. Make a little bit of noise, jazz up the environment, permit your store assistants to giggle over books.
If a click of the mouse allows people to buy books online, then bookstores must match technology by arranging books in a manner familiar to Netizens, by having book-loving and well-read staff quick to assist and make heartfelt book recommendations.
We owe it to each other to keep books alive, but I believe bookstores hold the key because they store books, not gadgets. Bookstores must be more human-like if gadgets can only be robotic. Booksellers have to be fervent in telling people what to read, rapturous when talking about books, passionate while providing a service to people who want to read, unyielding in retaining those who are still reading books and, most of all, genuinely convinced of the value of books. Only then can they unlock and show others the mysterious joy of reading felt only by bookworms.
And bookstores are the opposite of all this, that’s when they are at their worst. Sadly, an Australian friend recently visited a Malaysian bookstore and called it “the cemetery of forgotten books”. Books were tightly wrapped, and store assistants, if spotted at all, were busy displaying books as if they were preparing for burials. That comment hurt but was, nonetheless, fitting.
I am constantly reminded of the impracticality of physical books. But at the sight of books scattered all over my home, I am also constantly reminded of those times I spent reading them. My friend’s copy of Cloud Atlas is by my bed. It reminds me of the good times we had when talking about Maroon 5, Superman, Adele, Prometheus, sashimi, marriage, childhood, Ipoh, and Taiwanese desserts.
That’s what books are for: pleasures as well as memories.
Some of Abby Wong’s books remind her of people, but Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains Of The Days bears witness to her marriage – she had it with her when making her vows.