Imperfect pages, sauce on the side

old books make great pillows

I’ve been making a valiant attempt (if I should say so myself) to stop buying books. The extra savings have been essential for battling inflation, spending more than I’d like to on health issues, and just squirreling away a little extra for Future Me. Plus, as a book lover/hoarder, I do feel bad sometimes looking at the stack of books I haven’t read sitting next to a stack of new books, still hiding in their bubble-wrapped polymailers (it’s easier to clean dust off one big envelope than 5 individual books, right? Right.) At this point, I think I’m almost scared of touching my books. They’ve become museum artifacts, to be looked at, admired, contemplated in a daydream, but never touched. I’m on the move a lot, and the thought of accidentally dog-earing a cover from stuffing things in and out of my bag, plus the contamination risk of living with not one but TWO contagious diseases, means my books are too sayang to be brought outside of my room. Last year I brought out my personal copy of Singa-Pura-Pura to do a little photoshoot in town and ended up caught in a sudden rainstorm, warping the pages after they dried. Since then, my books are left to slowly turn yellow on my shelves.

The problem is that I don’t really remember my books anymore. Sometimes I have to hold off buying (tsk) or borrowing a book until I’ve gone home to double-check if I already have it. It’s occurred to me that the books I remember best are the ones that have seen the most mishaps. I remember every little note, scratch or stain on them—their battle scars, if you will. I still keep my old lit texts from school for nostalgia’s sake, sometimes opening them to read through the unintelligible notes squeezed between lines and in the margins. I recall fondly the questionable notes I jotted down after drifting off, only to add a “???” afterwards because I’ve clearly misheard something (Why was my secondary school teacher talking about “sugar daddy” in a class discussion? We may never know.) 

I remember vividly the secondary school afternoons I spent reading at home by the ketchup stains on my copy of The Time Traveler’s Wife. I’d stolen the book from my brother, fallen in love with it, and read and reread them, usually during lunch. A fairly regular meal for me was fishball kuay teow (with ketchup instead of chilli because I cannot tahan spice). I’d kiap the book between the table and my plastic container of noodles and devour both, occasionally dropping a ketchup-covered fishball on the pages. Good thing my brother never wanted his book back.

I will also never forget the frail, fully-yellowed copies of old Archie comics we used to buy for cheap from Bras Basah Complex, each one mostly falling apart and held together by scotch tape. Those were the days when the stories were unhinged and the illustrations equally so, and the artist used to draw Mr Weatherbee with a single baby tooth whenever he was fuming mad and yelling at someone. How I cackled over each instance of this.

I’m sure my new and pristine books are beautiful and worth reading, when I get to them. But there’s something about my old and battle-worn books that make me keep coming back to reread it, even if just a few chapters. Like a comfort show on Netflix while ignoring the 50 other new ones in your queue. They have character, they hold memories of who and where you were when you made each mark. It’s like a secondary story told in those pages, one that’s uniquely yours.

I hope you give imperfect books a chance, and take them as a blank canvas on which to create your own memories. 

With love and ketchup,

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