written by Caroline
In the midst of planning renovations for our house, Dave had to fly to Singapore to renew his entry into Malaysia for another three months. He had stayed the night at a relative’s house. Upon his return, he chuckled, “I’m supposed to convince you to get rid of the books in your house.”
Which wasn’t surprising. My relative had brought this up a few times upon discussing the family home; I was adamant that I was going to keep the library collection (which is probably why she told Dave, “Don’t tell her it came from me.”) Dave explained that the books were of sentimental value, but that didn’t matter. The books were too old. “No one is going to read them!” she exclaimed. I had to laugh at her upper-class Asian mentality of “out with the old, in with the new.” It seems like a normal mantra for most people here, but that’s another spat for later.
My family’s library collection is about 50 years old – not a very old collection, but a significant collection that my mother had started at a very young age of six or seven. A complete collection of hard covered books of Enid Blyton’s Noddy’s Adventures, the Secret Seven and a few of Blyton’s banned children’s books, such as “The Three Golliwogs” (called Golly, Woggy and Nigger), sit on the shelves. My mother’s fascination for crime literature in her teenage years displays two shelf rows of her dog-eared Agatha Christie collection. The influence of second- and third-wave feminism from the 60s to 90s is tucked in another section filled mostly with Simone de Beauvoir, Fay Weldon, and Germaine Greer. Don’t ask about the classics – it’s a whole shelf of its own. In one of her books, a friend from her uni days in Wellington has scribbled her a message on the first page: “To the next Virginia Woolf.” I’m proud of that.
The books I find on the shelf surprises me about how much I don’t really know about my mother. A month ago, I had found my mother’s copy of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” tucked amongst the hundreds of dust-caked, tea-hued books; and only a couple of weeks ago, I came across a compilation of essays about Kinsey‘s well-known but controversial study about sexual behaviour in males and females in the 1960s (in which I also discovered Marquis de Sade who wrote “120 Days in Sodom” in 1785). Erotically fueled books were strategically hidden behind the classics. In my teens, I remembered stumbling upon “My Secret Garden“, a compilation of women’s fantasies during the sexual revolution in the 70s, and the explicit “Golden Lotus” series written by an anonymous Chinese author in 1610. I’d like to think that it was my sex education at the time, although some parts were probably not so appropriate.
An array of travel books by Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Eric Hansen, Colin Thubron, along with many brave nomadic souls are packed into the shelves with numerous field guides of South-East Asian plants, insects, spiders, snakes, frogs and fungi. Since browsing the shelves, eating ant eggs in Laos sounds fascinating and planning a jungle trek from Sarawak to Kalimantan may seem like a possible next move. Referring to a Singaporean bird guide, I’ve found out that the magpies stealing the cat food in our backyard are correctly identified as “magpie robins” and have no relation to the magpie (see video below). The hardbacks of my mother’s recipe books are falling apart and have been rescued a few times with tape. Our Edmond’s cookbook, faded and lacking of a cover, has a recipe for preparing sheep brains.
Despite her passing, a part of my mother is left behind within these books – rarely applied vocabulary is penciled in neatly on torn scraps of paper tucked between pages to be looked up later, a quote or a recipe of interest is referenced. To be rid of these books is throwing away an undiscovered wisdom which she has already found and it would be a shame to lose that.
There are hundreds of unread books that still spark my interest despite browsing the collection for a couple of decades, and over the years, more books have been added from various members of the family. Nothing of physical wealth could replace the value of the history of our family’s lives interweaved with these books, and I’d hate to think of how my relative would react if I told her what I personally thought of her suggestion. It’s probably a good thing she doesn’t read blogs. 😛