Life for Beginners

Stories by Kenny Mah   |   Live Everything


Category: Books (page 1 of 9)

A tale of two indie bookshops

Tables, Shakespeare and Company

There’s this little scene at the start of the film Before Sunset when Ethan Hawke’s character, Jesse, a writer who is promoting his new book at a Parisian bookshop, looks up from replying a journalist’s question and notices for the first time a woman he last saw nine years ago in Vienna.

The woman, played by French actress Julie Delpy, may well be the love of Jesse’s life and it’s an incredibly romantic moment. “Are they still in love?” the viewers wonder. I know I am – in love with the bookshop, that is.

The bookshop, Shakespeare and Company, still stands today. Opened in 1951 by George Whitman at Kilometre Zero in Paris, the point from which all French roads begin, it was initially called Le Mistral.

The American-born Whitman changed it to the present name in April 1964 to celebrate William Shakespeare’s 400th birthday and in honour of a bookseller he admired, Sylvia Beach. Beach had founded the original Shakespeare and Company at 12 rue de l’Odéon in 1919. It closed in 1941.

In its heydays the original Shakespeare and Company was a gathering place for writers – Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald being two of the more famous names – and it was with Beach’s blessings that Whitman borrowed her shop’s name and continued her good work.

Opening time, Shakespeare and Company

Today most visitors to the French capital miss this tiny bookshop as they flock to the touristy Notre Dame opposite. A pity, really; there’s as much history here in the book-laden shelves as there are in Gothic churches.

Constructed in the late 16th century, the building was originally a monastery, La Maison du Mustier. A line written above one doorway – “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise” – captures the spirit of the shop to become a welcoming home for writers and readers everywhere.

Here are books to browse through or buy, author readings to attend, and even a bed. Yes, a bed! Whitman invited writers, artists and intellectuals to sleep in the shop, an offer Beat poet Allen Ginsberg took him up on it, as have more than 20,000 young writers in the past six decades.

For book lovers like me, visiting Shakespeare and Company for the first time is not unlike making a pilgrimage. One could spend hours, nay, days here amongst rows and shelves of books. Unlike commercial bookshops where patrons tend to keep to themselves, here it’s not uncommon for strangers to strike up conversations and debate the merits of their favourite authors.

While flipping through a new graphic novel by Chris Ware, I find myself discussing the comic book genre as literature with a lanky Brit named John McNamara. He shares, “I’ve been a customer for more than 11 years now and I’ve actually worked here on-and-off for six of those years.”

McNamara is now an antiquarian books dealer specialising in Russian titles, and often travels around the work looking for other small, independent bookshops with character. He asks me if I know of any in my part of the world and without hesitation I suggest BooksActually.

Interior, BooksActually

Hidden away in the old Singaporean housing estate of Tiong Bahru, BooksActually was founded in 2005 by Kenny Leck, who had worked at larger chain bookstores before. There’s a bit of the Shakespeare and Company vibe here – books filling up the tiny space, friendly and knowledgeable staff – but with lots more natural sunlight.

The sunnier ambiance helps to open up the place, but make no mistake; BooksActually is no lightweight where book selection is concerned. According to Leck, “I personally curate all the titles we sell. It’s important that we only carry what we would buy with our own hard-earned money.”

In addition to running the bookshop, Leck had also set up Math Paper Press, a small press publisher of new and up-and-coming Singaporean authors. “Local writing is something that is close to my heart,” he says.

Leck hopes that by documenting these local stories via Math Paper Press and making the books available in BooksActually, a point of reference is left behind for future generations. Titles include The Invisible Manuscript by Alfian Sa’at, Scattered Vertebrae by Jerrold Yam, and Balik Kampung, the Verena Tay-edited collection of stories about Singaporean neighbourhoods.

There’s certainly plenty to read, and more importantly, interesting and topical content often not available elsewhere. The challenge, though, may be finding enough people who are still reading these days.

Leck acknowledges this and laments the slow death of the reading habit. He observes, “Reading and playing Candy Crush on your smartphone are both leisure activities. But the positive kickback from the latter is instant while the former takes time. In this fast-paced, connected world of ours, the demand for instant positive kickback is even higher than ever. However, with instant gratification, it follows the law of diminishing returns.”

I couldn’t agree more. There is nothing like snuggling up with a good book, especially one that has been hand-picked from hundreds others in an afternoon spent in a charming bookshop. There is a whole process, akin to an adventure that brings back memories from one’s childhood.

Around the world, the big chain bookstores are struggling to survive. Some giants such as Borders have succumbed and closed down. However, there is still room for smaller bookshops that have a specific clientele and carefully curate the books specifically for these customers.

In fact, independent bookshops such as Shakespeare and Company and BooksActually seem to be thriving. Why not help keep the adventure alive by hunting down a neighbourhood bookshop today? Who knows? You might discover some long-lost tome or bump into a former love in between those rows of bookshelves.

I love walking into a bookstore. It’s like all my friends are sitting on shelves, waving their pages at me.
Tahereh Mafi

Kenny Leck, BooksActually

Shakespeare and Company
37 rue de la Bûcherie, Paris, France
Open Mon-Fri 10am-11pm & Sat-Sun 11am-11pm
Tel: +33-1-4325-4093

9 Yong Siak St, Tiong Bahru, Singapore
Open Tue-Sat 11am-9pm & Sun-Mon 11am-6pm
Tel: +65-6222-9195

An earlier version of this story was first published in The Malay Mail, August 22, 2013.

After ten

I like this quiet time that I have with my journal (to write in) and a decent novel (for reading, for sleep inducement). It’s after ten in the evening and I have time to myself. Time for myself. No more office work. No more freelance work. No more work, period.

This is about learning to make space for resting and decompressing. Otherwise the unreleased stress from the day will just build up and fester. It does, even when we are unaware of it (or when we are aware but refuse to admit its existence).

Deciding to switch off my computer by ten every night is a start. Still too soon, I wager, to insist on doing yoga breathing exercises before bed too, or bed by eleven; one step at a time tends to work better, I find. I will learn to take things slowly.

Certainly I’m learning to let go of spending all my after-office hours online. It’s hard not to get sucked in by one social media outlet after another. Then the hours slip by, disappear. The time that I did have, say between seven and ten, I could have cooked dinner from scratch, performed a few house chores, and more. I could have started writing and reading earlier.

It’s never too late to start.

Now, what’s a good book to read in bed?

The sound of colours

Have you ever had the experience, while travelling on the subway, when your mind just wanders off to some place between waking and falling asleep, with the chug-chug-chug of the train as a lullaby?

We could be finding our way out of a forest, where the trees are an impenetrable labyrinth of branches and roots, hiding sinister creatures in plain sight. We could be sunbathing on top of a giant whale while it swims across the seas. A pair of wings could grow from our backs and take to the sky, with the rest of us along with it.

The facts of a long day dissolve, giving way to a particularly vivid daydream or — what? We tell ourselves that it’s our minds playing tricks on us. Maybe this is simply another journey we are taking, albeit one in our imagination.

I’m reminded of the lessons we can learn from our subconscious when re-reading Jimmy Liao’s The Sound of Colours (better known as Di xia tie in Chinese, meaning “The Subway”). Jimmy, as he’s better known in his native Taiwan, began his career with 12 years in advertising before a bout of cancer forced him to re-evaluate his priorities in life.

After being successfully treated for leukaemia, Jimmy left his corporate job to fulfil his dream of writing and illustrating books. More than twenty books later, the author-artist is published around the world and his works are translated into dozens of languages. There is something universal about his whimsical stories and vibrant, colourful images that appeal to each of us.

Yet it soon becomes clear, if we pay closer attention, that Jimmy’s beautiful picture books also tell tales of the very human struggle to navigate in an uncertain world. His heroes, often children, adventure alone and appear very small amidst the chaos of the unknown.

Life becomes a series of philosophical questions, and the answers are not always forthcoming. Jimmy’s objective here isn’t to provide a solution but to reassure us that it’s fine to keep looking for one. The journey that the blind girl in The Sound of Colours take in the subway isn’t a linear one, and neither are ours, if we are honest with ourselves.

Her imagination allows her to recreate sensations – the weight and fragrance of a plump, juicy apple in her hands; the feeling of leaves falling around of her like sunshine she will never see again; the wind on her face from a butterfly flapping its wings – from her mundane surroundings.

Jimmy’s embattled characters affirm that life is indeed difficult but not impossible. There is always a way out; there is always a way to survive and thrive. Sometimes this could be something as simple as blind faith (no pun intended) – the girl cannot see the stars but believes she will find someone to describe what they look like to her one day.

Our imagination can save us.

Perhaps this is Jimmy’s legacy to his legions of readers and admirers – his insistence that giving in to grief and giving up is always a failure of our imagination. His own story reminds us that we can beat the odds and we can overcome. What happens in the end may not be exactly what we desired – it certainly won’t be perfect – but it will have meaning.

For we cannot go on journeys and return without changing, even if it is in ways we cannot yet see. Like the little girl, we may be blind. Like the little girl, we have the power to choose to see, perhaps not with our eyes, but with our minds. Our imagination.

There was an article in The Harvard Business Review titled “What To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do” which went on to offer a four-step plan to deal with any challenge. I can’t help but wonder why we don’t follow the blind girl’s lead and just use our imagination?

The lost language of words

We all love riddles and the best stories are often in the form of riddles; the adventures we crave come from solving (and resolving) the narrative. We want to find out what happens. In the novel Possession by A.S. Byatt, two modern-day scholars chase clues in the letters, journals and poems of two fictional Victorian poets — Randolph Henry Ash and Christabel LaMotte — who may or may not have had a romance. These literary sleuths (and us the readers) try to uncover “what happened.”

Yet after reading (and discovering the answer to the above question) and rereading Byatt’s book many a time over the years, there is still one mystery left for us to solve. Ash and LaMotte’s writings were conducted in a world where letter writing and poetry were art forms. Keeping a daily journal was the respectable and expected pastime of gentlemen and ladies alike. One put one’s thoughts down clearly and carefully.

Today, how many of us still take the trouble to write letters by hand when there is the near-instantaneous delivery of email? How many of us would spend time to write in a journal when one can blog or tweet? A hardbound journal with actual pages made from paper seems a bit dated in the age of Tumblr and Facebook. And let’s not even get started on poetry — can one get any more twee?

With social media we write more than ever — we certainly self-publish an extraordinary amount without the constraints of censorship or good editing — but do our words mean anything anymore? Perhaps the final riddle or adventure that Byatt poses to us is this — whatever happened to the lost language of words? Whatever happened to real words that mean something, words with weight and worth?

There is something terribly wrong, one of my friends once told me, when you can divorce your wife via a text message. And perhaps she’s right — how poorly we seem to conduct our relationships and personal affairs these days. One has barely enough time to read a message, much less digest its meaning, before the next one appears. We are expected to reply, to respond, right now or else the moment is lost — Next!

Where is the romance when saying “I love you” is so easy? (Certainly, there are plenty of smiley icons that will serve the purpose.) Ash and LaMotte’s letters and poems to each other seem almost quaint and shy by comparison — oh how indirect and bothersome that must have been, we exclaim — yet beneath their placid surface lie thunderous passions and desires. I fear our own desires in the present may be fuelled by less fire, especially when we only bother to copy-and-paste template love poems from a website for the objects of our affection.

If fast love is the order of the day, then people get hurt just as quickly these days and move on as easily. We are too conveniently connected in the digital world — being able to contact each other at the click of a mouse or tap of a smart phone touch-screen, where in the past, we may have been miles away from each other and every letter took days or even weeks to reach their destination. Today we are connected without truly connecting.

I remember a scene during a family gathering last Chinese New Year where everyone was busy tweeting or sending/replying to text messages on their mobile phones. I observed that no one was having a real conversation. Sure, we were talking to each other — but with an eye on our BlackBerries or our iPads. We fear missing out on something — but what is it? What could we fear missing out that is more precious than this moment with the people in front of us right now?

I believe that we communicate because aside from connecting with one another, we seek affirmation that we are doing well, that we are leading our lives right. Perhaps that is why we want to leave a legacy — a little bit of ourselves, the best part of who we are — to those who come after us. The poets Christabel LaMotte and Randolph Henry Ash left their own literary legacies but there was no way of them knowing this in advance. Even if one is truly confident in one’s prowess, how could one be entirely sure that what one leaves behind survives?

A man who plants a row of oak trees does so knowing that he may not live to see them in their full-grown glory but does it all the same, for the generations yet to come. I wonder, then, what legacy will we leave our children when all the words we have are digital bits and sound bites, when there is no physical trace that we were once here, that we laboured and lusted, that we sought liberty and love? Once, we had put them in the only form we knew how, in a language of words — again, real words — that had power and promise to, when they were spoken aloud or read in silence, fill the hearts of men and women with hope and heartache. I wonder, has this language been lost?

I hope not. We have time still to write as we did before. To write letters by hand to our dearest near and afar. To learn to love words for their precise meanings and to marvel at what that does for us. To write a poem, even a “bad” one (and I believe there is no such thing), in order to express ourselves in a different way and because the effort itself makes it worth it.

We have time to write something we would want to read later and remember. We haven’t lost the words yet.

To Continue

Earlier this year, my friend (and former blogger) Kopi Soh asked me to contribute a story for her book on stories about combating depression. I wrote her a story titled ‘Do Not End‘; later she told me she had decided to close her book with my story, which was quite a nice surprise and an honour.

I wonder about those who struggle with depression, whether as temporary bouts or as a life-long affliction. Too often, we are told depression isn’t really an illness, that “these people should just get up and do something”, as though that’s all it takes. That, I find, honestly, to be quite insensitive and intolerant.

Here’s a prayer for those who do not understand to begin to understand. Here’s a prayer for those who suffer to find some way to continue, to receive support from those around them and to be well again.

Kopi Soh’s book, Oh, I Thought I Was The Only One, is out now at bookstores and also available online.

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“Words are beautiful.”