A Small Joy of Life in Vancouver – Bookstores Still Everywhere
One of the things I appreciate about life in Canada is that we still have bookstores just about everywhere, from small neighborhood retailers to chain book stores in shopping malls and elsewhere that offer hard-cover and paperbacks of novels and non-fiction works on most subjects for us to physically pick up and flip through the pages.
Why books all of a sudden, you might ask. Well, the thought suddenly hit me recently after the highlight of our summer, a 2-1/2-week vacation we spent in Singapore early in September with our son, who is doing military service there, along with my wife’s mother, brothers and their kids. In the 17 years since we moved here from that city state, we must have gotten used to Canada’s relatively laid-back pace and lifestyle, because every time we go back to visit, we’re stunned anew by its frantic pace, especially construction projects from corporate and residential high-rises to ever-expanding mass rapid transit railway lines.
In contrast to Greater Vancouver’s measured pace of development as Canada’s western gateway, tiny Singapore under a “business development first” government continues to thrive today as the business hub of Southeast Asia and beyond, attracting private capital the way Switzerland used to, so that it now boasts the highest numbers of millionaires and billionaires per capita in the world.
Crowds rushing through subway stations, fighting for seats at popular eateries, jostling to be served at massive shopping complexes which all seem to offer everything from high-end brands to low-budget fare, hard-to-find parking spaces… those readers who have visited Tokyo, Osaka and other big Japanese cities must be familiar with that initial shock, no matter how familiar we may be with all that.
After we came back, it took a while for us to shift our mental gears down from the fast-paced < work, work, work, eat, eat, eat, shop, shop, shop, daily routine. It might be similar for many Canadian visitors to Japanese cities. In our case, our schedule naturally had to fit in with my brother-in-law and his wife who’re both working full time. Not only were they kind enough to put us up (plus our son whenever he returns from his Singapore army camp), they would take us to dinners and even lunches whenever possible, eating being Singaporeans’ national passion and pastime. Eateries from simple hawker stalls to food courts to reasonably priced restaurants abound, offering everything from local Chinese, Indian and Malay dishes to Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and other Asian and western cuisines. Imagine all the ethnic eateries from across Greater Vancouver gathered up and crammed into downtown Vancouver. It feels something like that.
As we returned to our usual pace and lifestyle, it occurred to me that something had been so scarce as to be near invisible amongst all the brand name shops in the many malls and shopping centres – books and bookstores. I did find a familiar bookstore that had moved next to a central up-market food court, but while the eateries were packed in mid-afternoon, there were only six or seven browsers among the many shelves of the spacious store. There is also an outlet of a Japanese global bookstore chain, where I always go to get Japanese magazines. The place was busy enough the couple of times I was there, but it seemed there were as many Japanese and Europeans browsing among Japanese, French and German books and magazines as Singaporeans looking at English language nooks. Otherwise, I only found one second-hand paperback store ($1 or $2 each) in an old-style three-storey shopping centre.
“Wow, you still read books, eh?” said my brother-in-law, a busy journalist, jokingly, when I showed him volumes I’d just bought – a collection of short stories by up-and-coming local writers and a comic book recounting the history of the old Malaysian Railway trains that used to come all the way to the final stop downtown, a classic British-built art deco building. Even including those who read books on line, not many Singaporeans nowadays seem to have much time left for reading books.
On just why reading books is so vital, I came across a great explanation recently by Shizuka Ijūin, a contemporary Japanese writer whose sensitivity and values I empathize with, and would like to read more of. I enjoy his columns responding to readers’ queries in the weekly Shūkan Bunshun, which by now has continued for over 170 issues. Recently he wrote something seemingly obvious yet so profound in his answer to a junior high school student, that I’d like to share it with you in part.
The student had asked whether he should keep reading the books he likes over and over, or whether he should keep up with new books that come out. Mr Ijūin iresponds thus:
“…so you like reading…that’s great, because young people nowadays don’t read books. It was the British who likened life to a sea voyage. That’s probably how much the Anglo-Saxons must have contemplated about life and death and passed down the idea that the days of our lives are certainly not always in fair weather.
“There are stormy days and freezing cold days…that’s what an ocean voyage is about. The essence of the sea voyage metaphor must be to behold in mind a destination yet unseen and overcome our daily trials and tribulations.
“…Someone described book reading as setting out solo in a “sea of words” in a small boat. You know, reading books gives you wonderful power, which is to say access to fascinating new worlds unknown to you, merely by reading what’s in them.
“It’s no good trying to read as many as possible of the new works that keep coming out one after another. Where your book reading takes you are encounters with works you were destined to meet.
“Inspired by his words, I myself have started reading a long historical epic that I’d wanted to read from before. Reading gives us “wonderful power.” I like that.”