I’ve been around books my entire life. In fact, I can’t really remember a moment that I’ve not been within easy reach of a pile of them. Growing up, we had books everywhere, stacked on shelves, on the floor, on desks and tables, on benches by the toilet, and even in the car.
To this day, it feels extremely odd to walk into someone’s home and not see a single book anywhere.
My mother’s sister Wai-ling used to be horrified when she visited and had to go to the loo and found a stack of books in there. “I hope these are not the books you lend me, Mei-ling!” she would say firmly when she emerged from the guest bathroom. “I don’t even want to imagine the kind of germs that are on them!”
“You only die once!” my mother once replied in a vaguely ominous tone. Later, over dinner, she complained that her sister should lighten up a little. “Maybe next time, I should tell her that we only read with our left hand!” The comment baffled us for months until the day my sister was sitting on the loo reading ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and she absent-mindedly reached for the toilet paper with her right hand.
When we went out and our parents had to run errands, they’d deposit the three of us in a bookshop with strict instructions to behave and to stay put till we returned. And if we were good, they promised, we’d each get a book.
The three of us would disperse, Michelle to the fantasy section, Jack to the travel books, while I dived into ancient history. Like the very well trained children we were who lived in daily fear of our mother, we sat quietly on the floor, cross-legged, gently flicking each page, utterly absorbed in our own world. Nobody bothered us, and back then, nobody blinked at the sight of three unattended children in a public space. Try doing that these days and you’d be on the evening news on your way to a court hearing for child neglect.
But that was the pattern of our lives. When we were low in spirits, books comforted us. When there was a special occasion to be celebrated, like a birthday or a good report card (which in those days meant anything above an F), nothing made us happier than to unwrap a package to find a book lying within.
Which is why when I say I grew up with books, I mean it literally. And, in an age of Kindles and iPads, it still gives me a thrill to walk into a bookshop, pick up a pristine volume and smell the fresh wood cut smell of its pages.
Of course, the downside to books is that they take up a lot of space. Especially if you’re someone like me who can’t walk past a bookshop without sucking up at least three new books, which I will take home, put up on a shelf, stand back to admire the new arrangement, and then proceed to ignore it for years.
The other downside to books is that they’re incredibly dusty. I know this because our cleaning lady Ah Chuan is forever screaming that our flat is a health hazard. She waits till all three of us are away on holiday and then, armed with gloves, goggles and face-masks, she proceeds to dust and clean every single book around the house. But because she never puts the books back in their original spot, it’s a nightmare trying to find the volume you might suddenly want.
Like the time Saffy, on a hot fourth date, found herself needing our ancient copy of the Kamasutra. By the time she finally found it, she was so exhausted and sneezy, she told her date she had to have a disco nap first. “That killed the mood fast, lemme tell ya,” she said the next morning.
Recently, we decided it was time to cull our books. “Every time we move, we have to also move these stupid books,” Amanda said very reasonably. “And we never read any of it. We just buy and buy. And they sit on the shelves getting dust and mould.”
Amanda’s plan is to throw out all the books that we’ve read plus any book that hasn’t been read in the past year.
Saffy looked around the flat, a frown etched on her forehead and calculated we’d be throwing out about 85% of our collection.
“It needs to be done,” Amanda said firmly. “Chinese New Year is coming. We need to purge.”
She’s right, of course. Our book collection has gotten out of control. But it’s all too heartbreaking.