READING SPECIAL

At home with books

Avid readers show how they house their collection of books

Chubby Hubby and wife devour books

Given their day jobs, it comes as no surprise that the married couple behind the popular food blog Chubby Hubby have a huge collection of cookbooks.

More than 1,000, to be exact, arranged by cuisine and mostly sitting on their custom-made, three- storey bookshelf in the living room.

This 6m-high metal bookshelf is a prominent feature in their 3,000 sq ft, four-storey terrace home in Cambridge Road.

Cookbooks are at the bottom six shelves and the upper shelves carry architecture, photography and art books. To access the higher shelves, you need to enter the third-floor bedroom of their five-year-old son, Toby.
 

A 6m-high bookshelf is a prominent feature in the house of food blogger Aun Koh and his wife Tan Su-Lyn. ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

Mr Aun Koh, 44, and Ms Tan Su-Lyn, 43, co-founders of the integrated communications agency. The Ate Group, have been living there since 2005. Besides Toby, they also have a daughter, Tara, aged one.

Among their many cookbooks, their favourites are two classics: Desserts By Pierre Herme, written by the legendary French pastry chef with American author Dorie Greenspan, and The French Laundry Cookbook, penned by Thomas Keller, chef-proprietor of the acclaimed Napa Valley restaurant, with food writer Michael Ruhlman.
 

Apart from their shared passion for food, the couple of 15 years have very different tastes in books.

He likes science fiction, Marvel comics and American gothic novels. She favours the classics by authors such as Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy.

Together, they have more than 3,000 books on other shelves in the house.

The home office and the playroom on the third floor, for example, carry more food literature, popular fiction and travel guides.

Still, they are running out of space to store their collection. Books are starting to pile up in various spots around the living room on the floor and side tables.

Partly as a space-saving measure, the couple read mostly on their iPad or Nexus tablet for "portability and convenience", although they still prefer physical copies of cookbooks and graphic novels.

The couple's reading habits differ. She will work her way through an author's work systemically, such as a recent phase where she read "all the Fitzgerald I could get my hands on", while her husband reads three to four books at a time. Unlike her, he will give up reading a book he does not find interesting.

He says: "Reading is personal satisfaction. I'm not going to read something that I don't like."

Growing up, the voracious readers frequently found themselves exceeding the book-borrowing limit at libraries.

Now, they take their son to the library, though Ms Tan says it is "not as frequent as we'd like to".

She reads to him every night and buys about four to six books a month for her children. Toby has already begun reading to his sister and is writing a story about dinosaurs, his favourite topic.

Ms Tan is reading Elizabeth Moon's fantasy series The Deed Of Paksenarrion, while Mr Koh has on his plate Kevin Wilson's The Family Fang, Kirstin Chen's Soy Sauce For Beginners, Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home For Peculiar Children and William Alexander's Flirting With French: How A Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, And Nearly Broke My Heart.

Despite their extensive collection, they know exactly which book to save should their house be on fire.

Says Mr Koh: "It would be a photo book of our son during the first year of his life. I haven't got round to printing one for our daughter, but that's in the works."

As for Ms Tan, it would be her "notebook of handwritten family recipes" of dishes the couple grew up eating, created together and that their children love.

She says: "To me, they are what help make our house a home."


First date was at book fair


Mr Low Soon Teck and Ms Vivian Yeung have about 900 books in their penthouse in Balestier Road. ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

Not many couples would go to a book fair on their first date, but that is exactly what Mr Low Soon Teck and Ms Vivian Yeung did in 2004.

The book lovers had met in Hong Kong while working at the South China Morning Post - Mr Low was director of operations while Ms Yeung was in the circulation department.

The company had a booth at the fair and Mr Low took the chance to ask Ms Yeung to visit the fair with him.

They moved to Singapore in 2005. Mr Low, 51, a Singaporean, is now a chief financial officer at a major healthcare company while Ms Yeung, a Hong Konger in her late 40s, stays home to look after Luke, their three-year- old son.

Books have always figured in the couple's lives. Married for 10 years, they lived in two apartments before settling down in their Balestier Road penthouse in 2013.

Says Mr Low: "In our apartment before this, our study room had a sliding bookshelf in front of another one that was fixed to the wall."

They bought their penthouse partly because of the 3m by 8m bookshelf that was designed by Mr Mark Yong of interior design company PIU Design for the previous homeowner.

The shelves carry about 900 books in English and Chinese, sorted by themes, together with Ms Yeung's Chinese teapots and vases and Mr Low's military figurines.

Ms Yeung also curates a general interest section for house guests should they wish to read.

The shelves are dusted once a week by their domestic helper.

But not all their books are on display. About 400 books, mostly Mr Low's fiction books, are stowed in a Toa Payoh warehouse. He finds it hard to give his books away, but his wife has no qualms donating books to the Salvation Army or passing them to friends.

Ms Yeung reads books on self- help, religion and Chinese history, antiques and furniture. She also likes Chinese wuxia novels such as the Jin Yong classic, Yi Tian Tu Long Ji (The Heaven Sword And Dragon Saber), which was made into a popular 1978 television series starring Hong Kong actors Liza Wang and Adam Cheng.

One of her most treasured books is Christians And Early Hong Kong Society by Li Zhigang, which has a section on her paternal grandfather Dr Yeung Shiu Chuen, who campaigned to free Chinese slave girls in Hong Kong.

She is reading parenting book Bringing Up Boys by American psychologist James Dobson.

Mr Low's love of books started when he was seven, after a cousin passed him The Famous Five by English author Enid Blyton. Mr Low's father, who worked in the human resource industry, encouraged him and his two brothers to read and made them read the weekend newspapers with him.

Now, he is a fan of British historical author Bernard Cornwell, military fiction and non-fiction, and books on politics.

He is currently reading The War Of The World: Twentieth-Century Conflict And The Descent Of The West by British historian Niall Ferguson, and re-reading The Famous Five and Tolstoy's War And Peace.

He is re-reading The Famous Five because he wants to see whether he could still experience "that sheer joy" he felt when he first read it.

Although the couple limit Luke's iPad time to weekends, books are, of course, allowed any time.

They try to expose their son to a range of genres, from Chinese language books and rhymes to Bible stories. But Luke is not interested in the Bible at the moment, the very book his father would save should the house be on fire.

"It's a great story book - historically and philosophically," says Mr Low, a Buddhist.

Ms Yeung says: "Luke will say 'The End' as soon as we start reading it to him."


A collection of more than 5,000


Author Suratman Markasan owns more than 5,000 books, mainly Malay-language ones that cover topics from linguistics to religion. PHOTO: ALICIA CHAN FOR THE SUNDAY TIMES

It may come as a surprise to most that Malay language-literary pioneer and critically acclaimed author Suratman Markasan began his formal education only at age 18.

Born to a labourer father and a housewife mother, the third of five siblings remembers a difficult childhood.

"My parents were both uneducated and our family was incredibly poor," the Cultural Medallion recipient, 86, recalls.

"Between the money struggles and World War II, my education was severely interrupted."

The ex-chairman of the Singapore Malay Teachers' Union sporadically attended Malay schools in the 1940s, but it was only when he moved to Perak at 18 to train as a teacher at the Sultan Idris Training School that the author and poet was finally introduced to the joys of reading.

"It was the first time I was surrounded by people who were constantly eager to find out more about the world," he says.

"My friends and I would have long discussions about politics and share our opinions about the future."

It was also Suratman 's entry into the world of books.

Eager to offer his opinions in discussions, he quickly developed a reading habit, dedicating at least half an hour a day to read something new.

Some of those books which he read in the late 1950s are still in his possession today, now housed carefully in his cosy home library.

Nearly 70 years on, his collection has grown to more than 5,000 books, mainly Malay-language tomes that span genres such as linguistics, fiction and poetry, as well as editions of the many books he has authored.

Housed in one of the bedrooms of the five-room Choa Chu Kang HDB flat he shares with his wife and 20-year-old son, the books are categorised by genre as well as by their country of origin - Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and Singapore. Inside many of these books are his own notes, scribbled in the margins.

The contents of the books are varied, ranging from religious texts to sociopolitical critiques written by the likes of Noam Chomsky. This is indicative of his own reading habits, given he reads about five different books at any one time.

"Whenever I get bored of one book, I put it aside and go back to it later. It's something I do as an author too - I like to work on many different pieces at the same time."

And though flitting from one book to another means he has properly read only about a quarter of the books he owns, the father of four has no regrets.

"I feel very lucky to be able to just go through my own library whenever I need a reference book," he says with a smile. "I think it is every writer's dream."

Since retiring from the National Institute of Education in 1995, he has maintained his habit of reading and writing daily - often spending a few hours reading in his library in the morning and writing at night.

He has told the National Library Board that it can have his collection when he dies.

"Till then, I'm going to keep reading and writing every day. It's a habit that continues to shape my opinions and thoughts."


Building a library of memories


Ms Anita Fam's extensive collection of cookbooks are housed in a giant glass-door cupboard. ST PHOTO: AZMI ATHNI

There is a lot to admire in Ms Anita Fam's beautiful colonial-style bungalow near King Albert Park, from its 1950s wooden furniture to the many tasteful art pieces that adorn her walls.

Still, the real star of her home is her extensive collection of books.

In a sense, every room is a library. Each nook and hallway reveals a shelf or cupboard lined with books on topics ranging from history and culture to travel and children's literature.

It is a library that Fam, 53, a council member of Families For Life, a non-profit organisation that promotes resilient families, has been building up for 35 years with her husband, publisher Goh Eck Kheng, 61. The house once belonged to his late parents.

The bulk of her library is devoted to cookbooks, showcased in a giant glass-door cupboard off the main entrance to their home.

In there, there are more than 1,000 books and magazines ranging from basic instructional recipes and food memoirs to food-inspired travelogues.

"To be honest, most people are rather intimidated," Fam says with a laugh when asked how people respond to her collection.

"They are incredibly precious to me. I have never given a cookbook away."

And indeed, flipping through the pages of Ms Fam's favourite cookbooks - classics such as Mollie Katzen's Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest - reveals many a food-stained page, evidence that they have been used and loved in the kitchen.

The enthusiastic chef and warm hostess is known for her impressive house parties, where she often single-handedly cooks everything from curries to desserts for up to 200 guests at a time.

Her passion started in 1988, when she was ready to leave for England to do her master's degree in law. Because she would have to cook for herself in England, she took cooking classes, the first one being an Indian cooking class.

Before that, the stern Cantonese ah ma in her childhood home guarded the kitchen, meaning she had little opportunity to experiment with food.

Since then, her love of cooking and cookbooks has grown and she picks up cookbooks whenever she visits a new country.

"Nowadays, even though I don't actively follow recipes anymore, I often flip through my books for inspiration or as a reference, especially when I want to try a different cuisine," she says.

Her second love is for children's books. Sitting in a study area on the second floor of the home is a selection of more than 1,000 children's books - a collection that she has built over the years with her husband.

The library includes classics such as Charlotte's Web, the Brambly Hedge series, beautifully illustrated pop-up books and first editions that are no longer in print. Both of them started collecting children's books before they met.

"I always say Eck Kheng and I are same-same but different," she says with a smile. They wed in 1998.

She says: "I was the sort who read all of Enid Blyton by age nine and progressed to D.H. Lawrence's very saucy Lady Chatterley's Lover by age 11. My parents didn't know what I had gotten my hands on.

"I continued to collect children's books even as an adult because it's a genre that represents the beautiful escapism that only books can offer."

Admitting that she can no longer put away "a book a night", she says she gives away to the Salvation Army books that she knows she will no longer read.

These days she goes through two to three books a month and buys about 100 books every year, turning to Amazon or Kinokuniya, Times Bookstores and Books Actually if she is on the hunt for a new read.

She also stops by Waterstones and comics store Gosh! whenever she is in London to buy books for herself and her two children, Gillian, 17, and Timothy, 15.

"Books to me are no different from things such as furniture or art that is collected or handed down from generations," she says.

"I feel blessed that I've been able to add to this collection over the years. It feels like building a museum - a museum of memories."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 08, 2016, with the headline 'At home with books'. Print Edition | Subscribe