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The Library of Lost Books: Cover, Hinge and Spine
A little gentle swim into how I learn to read (made harder with undiagnosed dyslexia), lost (and found) books and the revival of pre-doomscrolling days, where a book (or more) have saved my life.
(i) Take cover and turn on that flashlight all night.
This year, after a random Netflix binge of some spiral afternoon in which I caught Lost Daughter to practice mindful procrastination, I found myself finally getting around to finishing the audio book version of the film. This was something I never could find myself enjoying, being read to usually in a voice that is American (sometimes British) and so foreign from my own, let alone being able finish in a few days. I guess I get turned off by the absence of tactile material in my hands, a page pinched gently between thumb and forefinger, the sound it makes as I turned it almost marking the intensity of the read (or lack of it): that aggressive swish, following through from the last word to the next word of the next page, to the next chapter as the plot thickens and thins out into a hesitant flipping knowing that the end is near.
Or the weight of the book defying gravity, no, rather, defining it, raised by aching hands as fervent as prayer or pressed and nestled into knees, pillows, table, hard surfaces, soft surfaces, face, mouth, limbs bend awkwardly, stubbornly, face, mouth breathing out, leaning in as though for a kiss, almost intimate, always close. The book bears silently to both; witness to a myriad of facial expressions usually hidden from the outside world and custodian of inner worlds. Magic mirror, quiet companion, generous lover. The book follows me everywhere, at every moment, I flip the page to steal a few more words, leaves it near the stove and prepare some food. I balance it, bowl of food in one hand, book in the other. Bring it in the bathroom, get it a little wet, leave it outside as I shower, sneak in a few more words. Hesitates, continues. I hide it under the bed and reach out for it, a part-time fling and fall asleep, knowing it will not sneak out on me at night.
It was honestly by sheer luck that I managed to finish Lost Daughter which then got me into a whole swing of other audiobooks throughout the year, as though some little switch flipped on and my body adjusted to the absence of all that I love about noodling in with an actual physical book. Lost Daughter was about the absent mother, the needy child (with intention set on daughters rather than sons) and the lost of selves in the throes of motherhood. Coincidentally, my child was having her annual bouts of sleeplessness requiring long walks around our neighbourhood field sometime for up to an hour (or more on bad nights). I found the book on Libby and tried reading the ebook version first. My elbows pressed against the pram already wonky from use and it wobbled on the path precariously as my eyes played peripheral tag with what’s in front of me and what’s written on the page.
A few times the pram had went off path unto grass and out of defeat, stubbornness
or and the comfort of words that seems to echo my own discomforts, words that spoke of my own feelings, I succumbed to the audio version of the book. And thoroughly enjoyed it. I finished it in two days, feeling pleased and seen by a stranger I would never meet, in her words are my words, in her story, my own.
Ah that comfort. I remember how that did not come to me naturally. I started speaking my first words quite late in life, maybe at three years of age or close to four. I remembered**keys clanking, letterboxes, letters slapped across my face and tears. My mother told me I woke up the next day requesting T-OH-TER, taking only the end of each word Roti Taruk Butter or buttered bread. Right before Primary One, I still wasn’t able to read properly. My Malay teacher, Cikgu Jamil, a bespectacled earnest man who was always in a white shirt told my mother I confused my Bs with Ds and As, Ps and Qs. Words seem to dance on the page, wobble and sway, and I was tasked to catch them and anchor them down.
At first the books came, the ones I rarely read. Picture books, phonic books, a gift wrapped book, present from my father that greeted me in the morning. Flip floppy thin books with cute illustrations and big words with little strokes and lines on them More books. I placed a piece of stale chewing gum at the back of a book and got a beating of a lifetime. My parents were never tiger parents and cultivated my love for reading kindly. Library visits on weekends, book fairs, those sort of things. Maybe because I love stories of all kinds, cartoons, films, easy and immediate. But books require time and attention. Maybe because I was the youngest. My sister, who was five years older, ignored me mostly and I was left to my own devices. She however read a lot. And I copied her at first and then came to it on my own.
And then at nine, that box of books. My foundational library. The daughter of one of my mother’s good friend, Kak Ina, gifted me a box of books she had outgrew. These were not the usual thin flimsy kid stuff. It had the classics: Miss Havisham’s broken heart, Jo’s sassy comebacks or the hunger Oliver felt as he asked for more. Or delving into Catherine Lim’s short stories again and again, as tension grips before each reveal. I was that weird kid with no friends, obvs neurodivergent before the word was even in use. And these books became my only companions, my truest friends. And in some non-chronological build-up, reading became a synonymous part of me, albeit the struggle. The bookworm kid, the kid who reads, never without a book kid.
My rubbery library grew and grew as I devoured other books, other preferences. My grandfather’s pulp magazines Variasi with short macabre tales being passed off as facts. I remember a creepy pasta story of a stingray made pregnant by some lonely sailor. Or his Gila-Gila comics with political commentaries. My grandmother’s frayed cookbooks. Ornamental books in the living room about prophets and miracles. Reader’s Digest. My sister’s love for thick airport novels and their web of rich characters: Rice, Crichton, King and Grisham and though some were too dense for me, my late nights in bed were accompanied by vampires, lawyers and monsters of all sorts. On her travels my mother would buy hard cover books, some of them bigger than my face. For your growing collection, she’d say knowing there’s nothing else I would want or need.
(ii) Hinge/pull apart/unhinged
When I left my house after an altercation with my mother at fourteen, and changed parental custody to my father, she was forced to sell the house. So that we can all move in together, our new family, he told me brightly. A fresh start! Right before the big move she had placed all my books into carton boxes. Four big ones. These four boxes were packed separately from all of our belongings, stuff we had left behind after the fight. I was excited to finally be reunited with my books after months of staying with extended families as we waited for the new house to be ready. I did not really care about clothes, or toys or whatever was left behind but my books, I missed them oh so much.
I remember going into the warehouse. Pen-knife in hand, opening up all the boxes one by one. Clothes, more clothes, some toys, keepsake stuff like graduation photo or jewellery, our CDs and VCDs. I open the boxes one by one. My father standing at the edge as he helped placed the boxes onto a trolley. Just take what you need he reminded. Not everything ok? I nodded. I only wanted my books. So it went on for a bit, about eight boxes in total. No books. I looked at him, tears welling, my voice came out desperate. Did you take everything? I asked. He lied. Yes it’s everything there that you need.
No it’s not. My books. They were too heavy, he said. I left them behind. You don’t need those books. Where will you put them? You left them there? I asked. He did not answer. The pick-up was months ago. Those books would have been disposed off, gone. All of my collection. My autographed Lat comics, my foundational library, books that were gifted to me. Books I grew up with, the ones that I bought for myself. Gone. Gone forever. In hindsight, everything else after that seemed hazy. I remember betrayal blooming in my heart, the first one I truly felt and it swam into my gut making me sick. That night, I could not retain any food and water. I cried and slept and cried and puked, tears and vomit for two days straight. Some kind of purge.
Maybe it was out of guilt, but my father stayed by my side with a makeshift hot water bottle. He placed it on my stomach and nursed me back to health. We both pretended nothing happened. Didn’t talk about it. His guilt made me feel guilty. Must be the fried rice, I lied although no one else in the house was sick. In my fever dreams, I saw the boxes cut open, books laid out, a book bridge, across waters, a storm of papers, books torn up, careless and dirty hands. I remember clenching on to some and then hiding them in the earth. I buried what I could. The rest were ghosts, ghost books I’d never see again. Thick skin grew from that sickness, fortified with forgetfulness.
My mother called me when she found out I had fallen sick. She reminded me that choosing to be with my father instead of her was a big mistake. He doesn’t even know how much those books mean to you. I lied. No I don’t care about the books Mak. It was the fried rice, must be that. She knew I was lying and she laughed carelessly. The betrayal bloom and bloom, putrid smoke at the pit became hinged on that lie. I’m ok. I’m ok. Hinged on ghost books that carried with them my past selves, pulled apart and scattered up, and away, floating and sinking, wobble and sway. I’m ok.
I was staying in Woodlands by that time. Fresh start grown stale, rancid. Skipped school a lot. Went to the library and spend an entire morning until late into the evening, reading. Sometimes three to four times a week. I could not do anything else. I did not want to do anything else. What I could not afford myself during that period of my life. I made up with reading. I became obsessed with darker narratives, became hooked on Palahniuk, Ballard, Oates, Plath, survived on fiction darker than my own reality.
Maybe I wanted to replicate the same feelings, the same joys I had in those earlier days. Maybe I was regressing. Maybe I was nursing a child wound and did not know it. Almost got expelled. I hated school so much. I was bullied a lot. Did not have many friends. I read on that long commute to school and back. I started writing too by then. I read and read, I read for two years. And somehow managed to survived the horrible times in that wretched house. And then it was over. And I left everything behind, again.
taps saps, book binds and s(u)pine dreams
When I was small, maybe six or seven, my father told me that heaven holds all answers to the difficult questions. I imagined a library in the clouds with infinite books that open up and beam holographic projections revealing the secrets of the universe. It was my last thought right before I pushed the book I was reading under my pillow and let sleep come over me. (also a little shoutout to repeat watching of Pagemaster, Neverending Story and Matilda which left quite an imprint about the correlation of books and all things magic) Y’know that scene in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, where Belle walked into Beast’s huge ass library with shelves of books up to the ceiling and spiral staircases flanked on each end of the room. I let out a sigh always in that scene thinking to myself, damn what a lucky bitch. I want to be that bitch.
And so began my slow accumulation of books. Bras Basah secondhand books was quite a jaunt for me to find cheap hidden gems. Borders at Wheelock was for all the fancy reads, the graphic novels and music magazines. I never could afford anything at Borders though, but spend entire lunch breaks at work stealing little paragraphs. I lusted for some books, the ones that are wrapped tight in plastic wraps, the collector’s sets, graphic novels that cost as much as my weekly wage. Telling myself, it’s ok, they can wait.
There was a skill one sort of acquires to suss out a good book. Back then, a quick google search of a book review was not quite the norm, which consequentially broaden my picks to the most peculiar writers. I’d run my fingers up and down the spines of used books, feet arched to reach the higher shelves. Sometimes a book would find you instead, always at the right moments. I tripped on a book one afternoon at Bras Basah, worn-out beaten down, it’s cover peeling off the body. On the front in big fonts, the title read Cancer Ward. Coincidentally my grandfather received his diagnosis, Stage Four stomach cancer, and had refused treatment. I bought the book and read it front to back. The Stalinism undertones seem to match and echo our own ordeal. With no healthy retirement fund, my grandfather could not afford chemo and made a choice to delay it.
The book helped me grief the tiny little room of sickness with no door, no windows, no way out. The book helped me understand these inequalities made pronounced by my grandfather’s lack of options. A kind and generous man who worked all his life and yet not earning enough. He passed away a year later.
Much like Cancer Ward, other books found me in different parts of my life: Catch-22 when I was going through forced assimilation of capitalistic labour, Middlesex during the peak of body dysphoria/dysmorphia days and a billion other life buoys books that kept me afloat when I was caught in some life crisis undertow.
And one morning at 2am I stumbled upon a person online, who wrote dark prose riddled with quick wit. He shared with me a short story the first night, from a collection he named one half grotesque, a poem on the next, and I became hooked. Who writes like this? We met same time same place each night, he wrote and I read and then we talked for hours online. We became fast friends. Yes cliche isn’t it? But what sealed the deal somewhat and scored the points was that he gifted me a book a few dates in, which now in hindsight reads like an incel script tbh but that paragraph still hits all the right notes for me. #iykyk
Many books followed after that, until today. Book bound gifts of cummings, Rumi, the whole Calvin and Hobbes series, titles I’ve never heard of that I became completely in love, like the Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches (I read this book multiple times) or House of Leaves for that crazed ass narrative folding in and out of itself. My lucky ass may not have gotten a Beast-sized sky high library of books, but I met this person who not only DOES NOT read fiction but somehow always get it right when buying me books. And so this went on: the books he buys, the stuff he writes, (in the early days, he’d print out a copy of his new prose or collection of poems so I could have them as books) until today, seventeen years later. These books became bookends to the different phases we were in, pressed against each other spine unto spine.
I think of my ghost books sometimes, hoping that they too, have found new homes, on shelves, in the safekeeping of folks who struggle to connect with words, with others, hoping that these books will be weathered down and frayed from use, passed around as my ghost books to be revived as companions and guides, laying wide open on soft unmade beds, deep in supine dreams.
To “cure” late speech, newly opened letters from the letterbox are slapped unto the face of a child three times with some prayers and intentions which apparently worked for me.