Wednesday, November 3, 2010

An Illusion of Borders

Acres of chicklit and the male equivalent, shrines to James Patterson and Jody Picoult, books I might read but only if there were no cereal boxes lying around to keep me company—this is what I found in Penang’s presiding bookstores. I came away with nothing I yearned for—a map, a book on Bahasa Malay, the conclusion of Anchee Min’s life of the Empress Tsu-zi.

Kinokuniya in Bangkok had kept me alive as a reader, along with Orchid Books’ history selection and the wonderful grab-bag of perpetual surprises of well-chosen used books at Dasa Book CafĂ©. What in the merry hell was I going to do for books in Georgetown, I wondered gloomily. A used bookstore yielded a volume of Agnes Smedley’s wartime years in China and I read it slowly, trying to make it last.

And then I rode past yet another mall, which is where bookstores live in this part of the world, and a sign emblazoned on it announced that it held a branch of Borders Books and Music. As someone who resolutely avoided Borders and Barnes & Noble in the States, I didn’t get off my bus, but the damage was done.

A day later I set off to investigate what a Malaysian version of a big-box category-killer might have to offer. I walked into a gigantic brightly lit room with a Starbucks off to one side; I almost walked out but there were display tables…

And on them were multiple copies of Dan Brown’s latest and good old James and Jody and many, many vampire novels. Nothing leaped out at me in the fiction section as I wandered past its shelves and I kept on going. There was a separate space for music, half of the room I was in held really ugly children’s books and stationary supplies with the rest of it a confused jumble of haphazardly placed books in the usual sections. But not all the usual bookstore sections were visible, to me at least.

I roamed around and finally gave up. At the information desk was an earnest-looking boy who responded, “We don’t have a biography section.”

I tried to keep my voice level as I repeated his statement. I tried to smile but I knew it was a grimace as he explained that if I wanted a biography of a writer, I should look on the fiction shelves.

I did. I also looked for the short stories of Somerset Maugham and any of Joseph Conrad’s Asia-based novels and finally just one book that I might want to read. I came away with a thirty-year old novel by Alison Lurie and the knowledge that I would never, ever return to this hellish parody of places that have nourished me and brought me great joy.

But the truly terrible part of my abortive shopping expedition is that if this place had the vaguest idea of how to be a bookstore, I would have returned. And somewhere in my most hidden portion of my heart, I wish it had been well-stocked and well-run and you know what? If you were here, you would wish the very same thing…every last one of you bibliophiles and independent booksellers, because like me, you are an addict and will take what you need wherever you can get it. Be grateful you aren’t in my position and be sure to support what you are lucky to have, junkies.


Redcoates said...

>>>"... if I wanted a biography of a writer, I should look on the fiction shelves."

A strong argument could be made that many author autobiographies should be on the fiction shelves.

janet brown said...

That's where The Education of Little Tree and A Million Little Pieces ended up in the store where I used to live.

Kim said...

Wow --- it never occurred to me that Malaysia would be bereft of literature. But I have a gut feeling that you are going to stumble across a gem of a bookstore soon. And no I did not read that in a fortune cookie!