By Mao Shan Wang
I wish for my books what some women desire for their pets: suitable attire. But this has nothing to do with wanting to dress my books to reflect my considering them extension of myself, the way it tends to be with pet owners. (Admittedly, a well-dressed book could point to what the legendary editor Carmel Snow called a well-dressed mind.) Or to present a fancy exterior that tells the world clothing is not strictly a human priority and propriety. Rather, my books are given an outfit only when they’re being read. And because a book in use tends to be exposed to some rather tough conditions, they should be protected. Hands ready for gardening are always happy to see a pair of good gloves.
Truth be told, I have only two sets of clothing for my books, and both for those I tend to carry around than the tomes that mostly reside in my small library. One of them, bought in Beijing some years back, is a simple black jacket in a cotton that recalls those worn by coolies of the past. It’s a simple slip-case much like the plastic versions that were once sold in Popular Bookstore and were used to protect our school books. This one attracted me because of the side designated as the cover. On it are the Chinese characters xiang si (相思 or to yearn) embroidered in red. Next to the two words is a little dot, which could be a Chinese period, but, if you’re alert, you’ll realise that this is, in fact, a pictograph. Collectively, they read xiang si dou ((相思豆), referring to the red lucky seed, the Chinese symbol of love and longing!
The other is a recent purchase. I was drawn to it because it said “free size” on the packaging. Although the description is in Japanese, it was not difficult to make out from the illustration that this cover could fit a lot more books than my old one, which is essentially one size. Produced by Beahouse, a Japanese maker of cloth and leather book covers, it hints at a rather old-world way of carrying books around, much like the book band is associated with a practice no longer prevalent. What is it about the reading culture of China and Japan that makes readers want to protect the covers of their books? I have never seen, if they are to be seen at all, anyone here using a bought book cover; I have only seen books the result of terrible abuse.
This made-in-Japan wrap, also in cotton, but of rather fine twill, is a 44cm by 45cm near-square that is folded from the top down to the three-quarter mark, and then from the bottom to the half-way point. The top fold is held in place by a vertical stitch in the middle while the bottom is unstitched, which means it can be adjusted to take any book with size ranging from the average paperback to the standard hardback. At each end of the folded rectangle is a Velcro strip that can be fastened to allow the book cover to fit snugly.
Having your own book cover this versatile means you do not have to pay for books to be plastic-wrapped. It is very annoying that in Singapore such a service is charged by booksellers. Kinokuniya makes you pay S$1.00 per book, although their stores in Bangkok offer it for free (no charge at Asia Books as well). Moreover, in this age of green living, a reusable book cover, like a reusable shopping bag, can play a small part in our quest for eco-equilibrium, never mind that we are no eco-heroes.
I am one of those who like to carry a book in my bag. Uncommon such a habit might be these days, I have not given it up, as I do read during my commute on the MRT train—a sight, I suspect, is as often witnessed as a person without a smartphone. Inside my bag, the book is always in communion with the umbrella, battery pack, sunglasses, earphones, digital music player, and the miscellany that inevitably ends up in there. Books, unlike the rest in that community, have a weak body. When properly clothed, they can survive the unwelcome chafing that prolonged close contact may bring. A handsomely jacketed book, too, may spark a conversation with a fellow commuter, pedestrian, or shopper. No fancily-dressed pet required.
Beahouse Free Size Book Cover, SGD26, is available at Tokyu Hands, Orchard Central. Photo: Zhao Xiangji