Clearing my bookshelves is like clearing my past lives. Books from the house I squatted in when I was homeless, inherited when the owner eventually migrated. Books exchanged with the people I was dating. Resources my colleagues thought would be helpful, make me a better art director, or arts journalist, or editor. Books they loaned me that talked about the intersection of feminism and Islam. A Quran from a Christian, another on Islamic jurisprudence. A Bible from a Muslim. Many books about Sabahan politics, but none on Sarawak. Judith Butler from the non-binary-before-it-was-cool partner. The large (and insanely good) collection from an older woman — I think I was effectively her anak ikan for a few months, but we don’t speak of those days now, not since her husband.
Dictionaries and grammar guides, for work under a commanding editor. Design magazines collected from college days. The still empty notebooks gifted from dear friends. The books on food and migration from my queer housemates. Theatre posters and catalogues I hoarded from shows. Poetry chapbooks, written by friends. Of late, books, also written by friends. Badly edited art essays on dance and culture in Malaysia, also written by friends. Keychains from stalkers, some I can’t really give away because my name is emblazoned on them. Too many typography and calligraphy books. White people Theorising on Stuff. More philosophy and Chomsky than I will ever read, because fantasy and magical reality and science fiction are all more tempting. The Book of Sith for my birthday, from Josie. Recipe books and other objects I designed.
The missing: Issues of New Yorker with flimsy, torn covers, back when content didn’t thrive on the internet. My editor was trying to teach me longform arts criticism and writing through magazines. I picked up the reading, but alas, not the writing. I eventually passed them along to a younger budding arts writer with romantic notions of paper and texture and physical books.
The missing: The Pratchetts, Terry Brooks, Robert Jordan and Star Wars — I had near complete collections, but I hope they’re all in better homes now.
The missing: any trace that we once were. Only one woman is silent in these shelves, except for a pair of earrings she left behind. Maybe if there were fewer things on these shelves, the silence would be less stark.
The missing: books I donated once I got an electronic version on Kindle.
The missing: college books from courses I had given up on. Bio-science, finance even. One macroeconomics textbook lingers, but if I were honest, I would pulp it too.
The returned: books on editing. Books on community organising. Books on traditional arts, and dances, some doing important work challenging notions built following our National Cultural Policy. Books on the punk scene. Numerous zines. I wanted to share knowledge and resources with my colleagues, but everyone was so weighed down at work, no one had the time or capacity. And so they would return to my shelves, untouched after four years. All except for one book — Babi, published by Buku Fixi. I guess it’s better than zero.
This is too much for one person to collect. Most of the Malaysian and artsy stuff, I purchased. But nearly everything else came from someone else, which makes them difficult to part with.
Looking at my gifts, am I that much of a nerd? I kinda love it. My life has been full of gifted books, and it makes me feel wonderful. I’ll keep the notebooks, and make presents of most of the rest. I can only hope that in distributing these books, a small part of the feeling of a gift reaches some of the people. If not, it’s okay juga.
I need to remember that my relationships with people are different from these totems in my shelves. Some are just reminders of how things used to be. But overall, hoarding is a burden. I am tired of picking up heavy boxes full of books I’ve not read in years, when I move from one place to the next. I also don’t want people to look at these objects and think they have a glimpse of the person I am now, unless their idea is “This person owns way more books than she has read”. I don’t need to remember everything, or everyone. I don’t need these to feel loved or appreciated or remembered.
Reaching my hands back out to reconnect with some friends now, the precious from the miscellany, but so many are busy with work commitments. Guess I’ll take the time to fill up some of the notebooks. Or organise my Kindle. Slowly marking in days as friends come back to me, on when we shall meet. I think I should give each of them a book when we do.