THE brightly red storefront of the MPH bookstore at One Utama is no more. Instead I stand in front of a boarded up wall of sadness. Like anyone who has ever passed over that threshold I inevitably fall victim to reminiscence and feel a deep sense of loss.
Conventional bookstores are dying everywhere. MPH is, after all, nothing more than another step in the long chronicle of a death foretold. So, why am I filled with consternation? Having ordered books online and fuelled the e-book movement myself, I have to concede that I might be partly responsible for this closure, and so I reminisce.
A bookstore is so much more than just a shop where I buy books. I must have spent hours in bookstores, sometimes without buying anything. I have enjoyed spending time within these walls of literary refuge for many reasons other than purely mercantile ones. I have enjoyed getting lost in a cosy feeling of peace and quiet where books have my back, literally, hiding from the real world, amidst the crazy buzz of a busy mall.
I have taken pleasure in browsing through hundreds of beautiful book covers, wondering what stories they might hide. I have been exposed to new ideas, different works, content which I was not looking for at all. I have also spent time in the company of like-minded shoppers, of knowledgeable and dedicated sales assistants. Last but not least, I have delighted in the sight of an emerging new generation of readers, they too lost in worlds of their own, sitting on the floor of the children’s book section. Tempi passati (these are times passed), as the Italians would say.
Internet book orders from the comfort of your own home are so much more convenient, and faster, and often cheaper some might argue. True, but it comes at the cost of so much magic. E-book downloads are more appropriate, modern technocrats will argue. Digital books are space saving; a very valid argument considering the space and weight that my summer reading typically takes up in my luggage.
The enhanced reading ease is a good point too, especially in view of the fact that I often read at night. The option of increasing font size and backlighting in e-readers is a definite plus. Digital reading is eco-friendly. This, I have to admit, is a difficult argument to obliterate.
Why am I so dejected over the closure of a bookstore then? Am I simply resistant to change, like Socrates once was when he ranted against replacing oral learning by reading? Claiming that “Literacy could alter the kind of memory and probative processes required for the young to deeply pursue and internalise knowledge”?
I think not. To me, a book is so much more than simply a vessel to hold a good story. A physical book means more to me than mere words. The cover graphics give me a sense of anticipation; they are the doorway to a magical world in which I can lose myself with every reading session. The tactile experience of turning a page, the gentle swooshing sound it makes lets me dive deeper into a fictional realm of far flung places, of times long gone or yet to come. The slightly dusty smell of paper combined with the scent of ink enhances my reading experience on a mostly unconscious level.
The MPH outlet in One Utama is gone. Towers of three for twos and mindless, though dazzling celebrity cookbooks are clearly being relegated to a virtual platform. Globally however, a return to an era of values and beautiful things is noticeable in the publishing world.
In recent years, brick and mortar bookstores are being revived thanks to new publications with covers of jewel-like beauty, often with gorgeously textured pages. As the great American cover designer Peter Mendelsund puts it, books have “more cloth, more foil, more embossing, page staining, sewn bindings, deckled edges”.
I await with great anticipation the grand opening of a new and sustainable type of bookstore, where I will rediscover the poetic magic that masterful writing paired with creative design can achieve.
The writer is a long-term expatriate, a restless traveller, an observer of the human condition and unapologetically insubordinate.