Monday, August 29, 2011

National Library losing good books

SOMETIME back, I took my daughters to the National Library to see if I could find three books that inspired me when I was a teen. They were Son of Singapore, Man of Malaysia and Eye on the World.

Tan Kok Seng, a coolie born in Singapore during the Japanese Occupation, wrote them. They were his autobiography.

I borrowed the books from the National Library which was then housed at Wisma Tharkudas in Jalan Raja Laut, situated diagonally opposite the Plaza Hotel.

I wanted my children to read the books because they had left a lasting impression on me. I wanted to see if my daughters would be as inspired as I was almost four decades ago.

Tan was born at a time when there was much strive and hardship.

Despite starting work as a coolie, he moved up in life.

With colourful yet simple anecdotes, Tan wrote how he not only overcame the odds to survive but also learnt to read and write, and later penned what I thought was the most fascinating depictions of life during the three decades after the Japanese Occupation.

Unfortunately, when I returned to the National Library recently, I found none of the books at the loans section.

A search on the library's electronic database took me to the reference section where I found Son of Singapore.

The book could not be taken out of the library - if my children wanted to read the book, it would have to be done in the library.

The two other books, I was told, were no longer in the library's collection.

As we could not spend the entire day there to completely read the 130-paged Heinemann publication, or return the next day to continue reading if they could not finish, I decided that I would look elsewhere.

Besides, reading the first book without the second and third would be meaningless, so I decided to look elsewhere.

Before I left, I asked a library employee about the two books that were no longer available.

I was told that many books, including those two, had succumbed to wear and tear.

Many books had been defaced by readers and had to be removed from the shelves.

Those that could not be salvaged had to be destroyed.

I remember reading great books on writing at the library when there were more book lovers.

Among them were The Art of Plain Talk (1946) and The Art of Readable Writing (1949) by Rudolf Flesch, author and proponent of plain English who also invented the readability index.

In fact, I had also found a tiny blue hard-cover entitled On the Art of Writing (1916) by Sir Arthur Quiller Couch, which, if available, is a treasure worth its weight in gold today.

Then, there was an investigative series of books written in by a local Malay writer who used the pen name Matlob. I ranked Matlob as our very own Alfred Hitchcock.

My recent email to Heinemann inquiring about Tan's books came to a naught -- they said they no longer published them.

I wonder if local librarians use the Internet to source and acquire valuable books that were once in their collection but had to be destroyed or were lost through time.

And for the old books currently in the library stores waiting to be destroyed, I wonder if efforts were made to give these treasures a new lease of life, digitally?

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