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Culture Vulture

Multiple copies, multiple worlds

The pleasure of re-buying a book or having copies of it lies in each holding a specific memory and a different universe for the reader

Recently, during the #buysinglit weekend, I pounced on an old friend at a book fair.

"Poets, Priests And Prostitutes," I breathed, picking up an omnibus edition of Colin Cheong's works.

PPP, as I fondly think of it, was Cheong's 1990 rock fairytale of a novel, starring a literature undergraduate biker named Puck and his forbidden paramour Ariel.

The clean cover of the 2011 version in The Colin Cheong Collection featured a classic- looking road bike, as opposed to the lurid, neon-streaked image of a couple embracing that I was more familiar with from the battered paperback of my youth, now long-lost to some sibling or cousin who borrowed and never returned it.

As I type this column, PPP and Cheong's first novel, The Stolen Child, are by my side. I have bought them not just to re-read and refer to, but also as heirlooms to pass on to my kids. Now 71/2 years old, my younger son has a similar dialect name to The Stolen Child's protagonist, Wings, and I look forward to the day he picks up this coming-of-age story on his own. Such is the pleasure of re-buying a book - as well as acquiring multiple copies of the same book.

A cursory scan of my bookshelf reveals that I have three copies of Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird - all the same green, hardcover, Heinemann New Windmills edition from 1966. All pristine.

My elder cousin and my younger sister attended the same primary school as I did, so three copies on the same supplementary-reader book list were procured in three different years and somehow all found their way onto my shelves.

For more than three decades now, I have carted these copies of Mockingbird to every new home I've owned. Periodically, I crack open one of these triplets, to savour Scout's inimitable voice alone or to read it aloud to my boys.

At first, it was baffling, then funny. Now, it is just comforting to have this trio as a literary constant. Perhaps I have always needed three copies, for each stage in my life: Girl, Mother and Crone. Perhaps childhood is such a profound and important business that polymorphic copies must exist in my household. For me to slowly absorb, by dusty osmosis, the book's truths.

I hold my Scribner paperback of E. Annie Proulx's The Shipping News and marvel, as I always do, at the crisp clarity of her writing. Writing that makes your lungs hurt, breathing winter air. "Petal Bear was crosshatched with longings, but not, after they were married, for Quoyle."

I flip to the back. A receipt tucked between the yellowed last page and back cover informs me that I paid $10 for it from a now-defunct second-hand bookstore in the no-longer-existing Funan Centre.

I have a second copy of The Shipping News - a novel that instructed about loneliness and second chances, and the rudiments of good copy-editing and small-town newspapering. This one is a bashed movie tie-in version, its torn cover featuring the Hollywood faces of Kevin Spacey and Julianne Moore.

I found it one freezing April day in Iceland, having decided it was a good idea to take a plane up north into Viking and Game Of Thrones wildling territory. The temperature had been minus 4 deg C and I spent most of the time hiding in a hostel cafe, re-reading that copy of The Shipping News some other tourist had left behind. The cold of Newfoundland depicted in the book bled into the cold of Akureyri outside.

When it was time to leave, I found myself unable to abandon the book. I took it home with me, where it stayed for a while in a little greenhouse I had converted into a free library, but never had the courage to leave outside for my neighbours to enjoy. An adopted stray that I have trouble re-releasing back into the wild. Maybe some day. Soon. Both copies are reminders of places and time lost.

Sometimes, multiple copies are the result of mergers. A tangible relic of separate lives melding into one. Two copies of William Zinsser's classic guide to writing non-fiction, On Writing Well, float around our flat.

I'd brought one with me into this marriage, having won it for writing the best story (ironically, fictional) during my Basic Reporting Course in the early 2000s. My husband's copy is the 25th anniversary edition published by Quill, which he had bought for $28 from Borders, reflecting the different routes by which we'd taken into journalism. I had fallen into the field by accident and muddled my way through as a rookie. It had been his dream and he had taken active steps to prepare himself for it. Criss-crossing paths, dotted lines, parallel universes bloom from these two books - divergent physical bodies for the same text and variant souvenirs of love.

There are other manifold tomes in our library. The Harry Potter books that had belonged to me, with their drab covers and small print, and then my speed-reading kids' spanking new copies with fantastic cover art and gold- embossed titles. The Sandman comics, of which we buy in duplicate - one for reading and one for collecting in mint condition. Shrink-wrapped novels I bought at book sales, and then bought again, forgetting I had them.

Each has a history, and each - depending on who reads them in our family - has its own trajectory. Each holds a specific memory and each is capable of containing a distinctive new universe.

In an age of fake news, literature breaks down egotistical tendencies towards monolithic truths. And owning numerous copies of the same book strengthens this resistance.

Who's afraid of reading different things in the same books? Not me.

•Clara Chow is the author of Dream Storeys (Ethos) and co-founder of WeAreAWebsite.com

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2017, with the headline 'Multiple copies, multiple worlds'. Print Edition | Subscribe