Tag Archives: Books

New additions to the library

The trouble with having a reasonably well-stocked bookstore two streets down from your workplace is that once in a while, no matter how irregular it may be, you will find yourself wandering towards it. Even if it lies in the opposite direction from the subway station from which one takes an east-bound train to go home. In the last two months, I’ve made two such visits to this bookstore and added on to my growing collection of unread books. Having sat down to compose this post, it’s interesting to note the different genres my purchases encompass – amusing, given how my reading habits are entirely shaped by the kind of books I’ve previously encountered in a specific genre.

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman – My first encounter with Neil Gaiman was his hilariously entertaining collaboration with the late Sir Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. Then came American Gods and…I have never really ventured into his other works, especially his graphic novels. There’s still time to rectify that I guess. But what caught my eye with this book is the tiny inscription on the cover page, under the title. “Short fictions and disturbances.” I’m very selective about the authors whose short fictions I read – knowing Mr. Gaiman’s penchant for the bizarre and the quirky, I figured this ought to end up in my reading list. So far so good – he gives a great introduction to the book, including a breakdown of his own thought process behind each story contained within the pages.

China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan – I’ve never read Kevin Kwan but I’ve heard plenty. He’s one of the few Singaporean writers who have achieved global fame for his book Crazy Rich Asians, an honest look into the quirkiness of Asian families. I’m not sure what to expect from this book, given I’ve not even read the summary of the other book he’s actually famous for. But I suppose one can never complain about reverent mockery of Asian stereotypes by Asian writers.

The Art of Rhetoric by Aristotle – Everyone, especially journalists, need to visit this book at least once in their lifetime. Of all the Aristotelian works I’ve read, as a result of a couple of Philosophy classes during undergad, curiously I’ve missed this out. (Which could explain the lack of rhetoric on this blog)

Inferno by Dante – Again, one of those classics that merit a re-read. And I’ve never owned a physical copy before.

Fables by Aesop – This I’ve been genuinely interested in, ever since I did a project on fables and fairy tales for a literature class few years back. Time constraints prevented me from looking into Aesop’s work as an examination of how fables and fairy tales evolve with culture. Perhaps if I dig up my old notes (hurray digitization!) from that project, I might have materials to compose a blog post where I can finally take a deeper look.


Book Review: An Appetite For Wonder

An appetite for wonder

“I’m happy to say it wasn’t long before I reverted to earlier doubts, first planted at the age of about nine when I learned from my mother that Christianity was one of many religions and they contradicted each other. They couldn’t all be right, so why believe the one in which, by sheer accident of birth, I happened to be brought up?” p. 141

Famed biologist Richard Dawkins is known as much for his contribution to science as he is for his voracious commentary on atheism.  Having never read any of his published works, which include The Selfish Gene, The God Delusion, and The Ancestor’s Tale, Dawkins’ biography was an enjoyable journey in learning more about the man. Unlike other works of non-fiction, this particular book called to be read out over months instead of being sped through in days.

An Appetite For Wonder is fairly easy to follow as chapters are divided chronologically; the book invites us to work our way through Dawkins’ childhood in Africa, his formative years in England, trained at Oundle Public School and Oxford, quirky teachers, friends, and relatives he had, poems, hymns, and songs he had to sing as part of tradition, and his experiences as a member of the scientific community. His predilection for the natural sciences started young and was also hereditary. What makes the book particularly enjoyable are the numerous anecdotes that Dawkins shares, followed by biting bits of self-reflexive criticisms.

One early example is when he was bitten was a scorpion as a child:

“As for the scorpion, it gave me a painful rebuke for my deficiencies as a budding naturalist. I saw it crawling across the floor and I misidentified it as a lizard. How could I?” p. 37

There are also some beautifully explained passages about dull scientific concepts.

Recently Dawkins has been attaining some negative press over his comments about a young Texas high school student, Ahmed, who was arrested for making a home-made clock and bringing it to school. Dawkins took to Twitter and linked to a video post that called into question the authenticity of Ahmed’s ‘invention’ and wondered what his motives were.

Predictably, Dawkins received a fair bit of flack of side-tracking from the issue and also the hints of Islamophobia in his comments – it didn’t matter what Ahmed made was authentic enough to be called his own invention or what his motives might have been. The important issue was that he was unfairly targeted by his high school and the cops because he happened to be brown and Muslim.

Dawkins’ scepticism was hard to understand, especially when the boy in question was merely 14. In his biography, he is just as blunt and unsympathetic in his communication. In one instance, he talks about his scepticism about students. He wrote an account of his time at Oundle:

“Peer pressure among schoolchildren is notoriously strong…You had to pretend to be working less hard than you actually were….But such missed opportunities!…Perhaps devoted teachers, instead of casting their pearls before piglets, should be given the opportunity to teach pupils old enough to appreciate their beauty.” p. 128

Not that this has anything to do with his unfair comments about Ahmed, but as I read through his Twitter, I couldn’t help but recall what he wrote above. He values education, which is evident in the way he talks about his own journey, first as a student, then as an educator, and there are some brilliant anecdotes that give readers a glimpse into his atypical posh English life. (I mean if that’s your thing when picking up a book.)

Dawkins also talks candidly about his circumcision, being a bystander in instances of bullying, and then drops a bombshell by talking about his experiences with sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher in boarding school. Things one wouldn’t expect people to be so forthcoming about by writing it down in pages for millions to see. There was plenty of retrospection about Dawkins’ search for an identity as a child, the kind of nomadic life he led as an expat in his early years – something that I can relate to – and there were also some potentially unpopular views. He argued, several times throughout, that children should not be encouraged to be gullible and believe in the fantastic; he recalled his own instances where he was young enough to be fooled into believing in the fantastic and called those experiences embarrassing.

“Why do adults foster the credulity of children? Is it really so obviously wrong, when a child believes in Father Christmas, to lead her in a gentle little game of questioning?” p. 51

As a student of literature, I found that objectionable because, unlike his area of study, mine thrives on the fantastical.

Overall, the book is worth a read if one is interested in Richard Dawkins. Before I was gifted this book by a family friend, I was aware of him but never actively interested in his being. Which made this book a perfect primer into exploring his other published works and figure out if the hype is worth it.

[Read | Skim | Toss]

[Buy | Borrow]

Singapore’s first travelling book swap

At the Esplanade waterfront, overlooking the Singapore skyline. Source: Books and Beer Singapore

At the Esplanade waterfront, overlooking the Singapore skyline.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

Last month, on a breezy Saturday afternoon, some 200 book lovers gathered at a bar near the waterfront of the Esplanade Mall to celebrate the fourth anniversary of Books and Beer Singapore.

Its organisers describe the event as Singapore’s first travelling book swap. Book enthusiasts flocked around wooden benches and high tables at Mischief (the bar), overlooking the Marina Bay Sands in the distance. Some of the tables had about a dozen or so books each, spread out from a variety of genre including science fiction, crime & mystery, and fantasy.

Books. Beer. While the words may seem like a misplaced juxtaposition of two seemingly unrelated activities, Book and Beer has been around since the summer of 2011. Held frequently at various, changing locations, the event aims to bring together book lovers from all over the island to exchange their already-read materials for new ones; and, of course, to meet other book lovers over a pint of chilled beer. The inaugural book swap in 2011, attended by 12 people, was held at the now defunct Post-Museum.

“On average, we get around 60 to70 people per event,” said organisers Melissa Low and Eileen Lee. The fourth anniversary celebration supposedly was their most well-attended event to date.

The concept of starting a mobile book exchange came from Melissa’s personal experience with lending out books to friends. A friend who had borrowed a handful of books “wasn’t getting hints about returning them,” said Melissa. To make the situation less awkward and confrontational, but to also get said friend to return the books, Melissa organised a private book swap at her place. When she initially set up the event on Facebook, called “Book Swop”, and invited her friends, initially no one responded in the affirmative. Later, Melissa changed the name of the event to “Books & Beer” and offered to throw in “a crate of beer”; in the end over 20 people showed up.

Since then, the name, Books and Beer, stuck on.


The “host” café for the fourth anniversary celebration.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

Back at the Esplanade waterfront, book lovers shuffled from one table to another in search for their next read. As more people arrived, newer books were added to the stacks to replace the ones that had already found homes on new bookshelves. Participation in the swap is simple enough; attendees bring their stack of books they are willing to give away. Books that are up for swap are first stamped by the organisers and then placed on one of the several tables – makeshift libraries -, waiting to be picked, browsed, and taken. Over three hours, the libraries get reshuffled with new additions.

Unlike traditional swaps, participants do not always need to have books ready to be given away, in order to pick up new ones at Books and Beer. “We welcome everyone to the event,” said Melissa and Eileen.

At the end of the day, the books that are left behind are packed up into suitcases and brought home by the organisers. They are added to the new pile of books up for swaps at subsequent events. Melissa and Eileen added that they receive frequent requests to contribute towards book donation drives or book exchange start-ups in residential communities or corporate offices. “On a case-by-case basis, we drop off a bag worth of books at these drives,” they said.

A winning combination of books and beer on a Saturday afternoon. Source: Books and Beer Singapore

A winning combination of books and beer on a Saturday afternoon.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

In a digital age dominated by paperless technology, the demise of printed books has been prophesised for almost a decade. Proponents of electronic books, or e-books, advocate lower cost, mobility, and some even make arguments for the protection of the environment. But print, always resilient to the tides of technological change, is not about to dissolve into oblivion any time soon as Nielsen BookScan, which reports on the sales of both print and electronic books in the U.S., saw a 2.4% growth in the former in 2014. E-book sales, by comparison, are beginning to plateau.

Back in the tropical warmth of Singapore, where the penetration rate of new technologies is one of the highest in the region, the battle lines between e-books and print books are not as clearly marked. So how does Books and Beer attract book lovers and Kindle addicts alike to participate in the “archaic” practice of book swaps?

“We are not a typical book club,” said the organisers, who believe the changing locations and the promise of beer is a start to drawing in the crowd. They encourage their participants to bring in any and all types and genres of books, read and unread. And if participants do not like the books they pick out, they can exchange them for new ones at another Books and Beer event. It is, “kind of like going on a blind date with a book, only you can choose to set it aside,” said Melissa and Eileen.

A wide variety of books can be found in the makeshift libraries.  Source: Books and Beer Singapore

A wide variety of books can be found in the makeshift libraries.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

Books that surface at the swaps range from travel books to textbooks, complete anthologies, and on occasions signed copies or early editions. Another perk, said the organisers, of this book swap is finding hidden memorabilia stowed away between the pages. Over the years, participants have found “a Japanese train ticket,” “Polaroid photograph used as bookmarks,” and occasionally “love notes scribbled on the front or back pages.”

To make things more interesting at their fourth anniversary celebration, Melissa and Eileen worked with Penguin Random House to give away a series of lucky draw prizes, which included a full set of 80 Little Black Classics (top prize) and autographed cookbooks. Penguin also gave away penguin pins to attendees.

The winning prize at the lucky draw was 80 titles of Penguin's Little Black Classics. Source: Books and Beer Singapore

The winning prize at the lucky draw was 80 titles of Penguin’s Little Black Classics.
Source: Books and Beer Singapore

“This is the first time we’ve worked with publishers for sponsorship of books,” said Eileen. The books were originally donated by Penguin to be included in the pool of books to be swapped.  But the organisers decided that giving them away as prizes was a great way of thanking their loyal, and expanding, group of supporters and fellow book enthusiasts.

At Penguin’s suggestion, there was also a book reading segment that afternoon for author and founder of The Singapore Writers Group, Alice Clark-Platts. Previously, the organisers of Books and Beer also collaborated with the National Library Board as well as the Singapore Writers’ Festival.

First-time attendees usually hear about the event through word-of-mouth, despite the strong social media presence. I first heard about Books and Beer through my friend, Meera, who had, in turn, heard about it from another friend. To cast the net wider, Melissa and Eileen leverage on the extended networks of their sponsors, partners, and host cafes.

While Melissa and Eileen have no plans to set up a permanent venue for their growing book swap, they plan on undertaking more collaborative efforts to retain the novelty factor; this includes getting involved in the art scene and also finding ways to welcome hardcore e-book devotees into the book swapping mix. Also in the making is a book-themed dinner at Carvers & Co on Upper East Coast Road.

“We’d like to think that beer provides the social lubricant for making this happen but food is what really gets Singaporeans talking!” said Melissa and Eileen.

Check out Books and Beer on the social web – here, here, and here.

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