Vectors of discovery: serendiptious discovery in libraries and bookstores
- debbie ding
If you’re a Singaporean whose household has received one of those CDC vouchers (Singapore Government voucher scheme which was part of the Household Support Package in Budget 2021 & 2022), you can spend these vouchers in a number of participating shops and establishments which are housed within HDB blocks and other heartland places. Surprisingly, one of those stores that accepts CDC vouchers is Basheer Graphic Books, one of Singapore’s most well-known art and architecture bookstores, hidden away on the 4th floor of Bras Basah Complex. Its still there despite the protractedly prolonged renovation works that have been crippling the businesses of Bras Basah Complex for the last few years (go and support the shops at Bras Basah!)
To be honest a lot of my reading is digital these days, with digital copies of texts and books or excerpts and OCRed documents that are easily searchable and digitally annotatable on my iPad Pro. I scoop up new reads and digitise them into my Notion table by their keywords.
This works when I am looking for, say, every single book in existence with the word “ludic” in it. But what if that wasn’t the keyword used by the author? What if actually there is a keyword I don’t even know of that I ought to be reading? The online repositories aren’t always very good at giving me what I didn’t think of looking for. So I still frequently visit the libraries and bookstores because they are places where you can serendiptiously discover new reads…
The process of picking a book in a library or a bookstore is also like play itself. You’re a vector of discovery, searching for information in the stacks, drifting through the columns and shelves, but suddenly inexplicably drawn to something that catches your attention. I suppose the things that draw us to a book are so utiliarian or silly at times – maybe you’re the sort of person who would pick a book that looks weird, that might be old, that might be pristine and unread, that might be clean, that might be dogeared. Maybe someone left a bookmark in and the string is peeking out. What if the best way to browse information wasn’t just to use conventional categorisation, but instead to be able to explore the library in chaotically serendiptious ways?
Now, the library is good, but if I am frank, the National Library (next to Bras Basah) has fairly general books. The adult lending section has some pretty looking art and architecture books for a general audience, but the gems are harder to mine. The best reads at the NLB are probably hidden away in the reference section, which we don’t always have time to explore. But when you go to the art and architecture bookstore like Basheer, that’s when nearly all the books really go in deep and obscure. I landed on a shelf and immediately found a half dozen reads in topics that I had never thought of reading but which I absolutely had to read.
Another place I have loved is (Takashimaya Orchard) Kinokuniya’s art and architecture section, which is so large you can get lost in it. I get the sense that a large portion of this bookstore is organised around a central escalator in the Takashimaya building, and that it it is possible to go around and around in a seemingly magically infinite bookstore – without realising you are simply going in circles.