IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Book an adventure in hotel libraries

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 31, 2013

On a cruise to Phuket recently, I accidentally found myself in Australia.

Shortly after boarding the ship Mariner of the Seas, I made my way to its library with plush carpet and leather armchairs. There, I ran my finger along the spines of the usual Sue Grafton crime novels and Tom Clancy thrillers, until I lit upon something promising.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman, spelt the letters in gold on the cover of the dark-blue paperback. I flipped to the first page and began skimming through the initial paragraphs. April 27, 1926, Western Australia: A lighthouse keeper and his wife find an infant in a boat washed up at a deserted island. Despite their gnawing conscience, the childless couple decide to keep the baby girl.

As I read on, the prose of this unknown (to me) author with the androgynous initials washed soothingly over me: "From this side of the island, there was only vastness, all the way to Africa. Here, the Indian Ocean washed into the Great Southern Ocean and together they stretched like an edgeless carpet below the cliffs..." Chugging along in the South China Sea, in a diesel-electric vessel of 138,279 gross tonnage, the novel evoking the majesty of the seas tugged at me. I checked it out.

For the next six days, save for shore excursions, I had my nose buried in that book. On a wind-lashed deck under the stars, I devoured page after page, while bingo games and line-dancing sessions went on in the depths of the ship. In our stateroom, as our two boys peered out the porthole, I read the lyrical bits aloud to my husband, about the paradise in having - and hell in losing - a child: "Like the wheat fields where more grain is sown than can ripen, God seemed to sprinkle extra children about, and harvest them according to some indecipherable, divine calendar."

I had brought with me my own book to prevent boredom on the high seas - Donna Tartt's latest, The Goldfinch. Now, it lay abandoned in my luggage. The Light Between Oceans - set in a town still haunted by Anzac veterans and the ghosts of young men lost in Gallipoli and beyond, with its air of lonely desolation - suited an ocean crossing better. Like meeting an intriguing stranger in the night, stumbling upon Stedman's (the "M" in the nom de plume, I later discovered on land with Google, stands for "Margot") elegant first novel led to a tandem voyage in my mind.

Such is the allure of resort libraries and the unexpected journeys they offer. Musty, trashy and often boring, my love affair with them has led me on many parallel sojourns.

As a primary school child, stuck on Pulau Tioman with my deep-sea-diving dad, sun-averse mother and a collection of tanned, noisy cousins, I sought refuge in the basic beach resort's library - and promptly stumbled on a stash of Carter Brown pulp fiction, their pages edged in yellow.

The pen name of England-born Australian Alan Geoffrey Yates, Carter Brown opened up a world of racy, noir-tinted escapades for me. By day, I was a seashell-picking tween on a snorkelling holiday; by night, I was with Brown's Bond-esque but more risque gumshoe, investigating mysteries while bedding cocktail waitresses and femme fatales.

On a trip to Bali last year, I checked out a paperback of Balinese short stories from the Ubud resort's modest library - a teak-wood cabinet filled with carefully selected books about the area. I can no longer remember the names of the authors in that anthology. But I remember the themes of past and tradition colliding with progress and prosperity; of how villagers had to wrestle with the choice of selling ancestral land, to build resorts like the one I was staying in.

In the tea room of our hotel at Borobudur, when we visited the ancient Buddhist temple earlier this year, I was thrilled to find a copy of Baedeker's Great Britain guide - referred to in classics by George Eliot and E.M. Forster. Alas, I could not read the old German edition with its crumbling spine.

Not all hotel libraries yielded treasures, of course. But the disappointment of finding a lousy library was also revealing, and became part of my experience of a place.

In China's trendy boutique Kapok Hotel, a stone's throw away from the Forbidden City, I bounded excitedly to the amphitheatre-like library with bubble-shaped white seats, only to find that the shelves were tragically bare. It was not the only place in the world where I would find that the grand infrastructure had yet to be matched by the intellectual content and variety.

In a lovely resort in Thailand, the edgily designed library was filled with coloured Murano glass sculptures and curvy iMac terminals. Even as I was thrilled to see the tomes on display, all rewrapped carefully in white dust jackets (for a pristine, uniform look), I was bored with the offerings - mostly glossy coffee-table books on island photography. It brought home to me the difference between superficial jet setting and actual exploring.

No wonder hoteliers are waking up to the commercial draws of a well-curated library. Last month, The New York Times ran a piece on many new hotels making sure that they have spaces for travellers to feed, as well as rest, their heads. The Fogo Island Inn in Newfoundland, Canada, has at least 1,000 books on the region's culture and history, while the W London Leicester Square has a (W)riters' Library, with books selected and annotated by authors such as Bret Easton Ellis and Geoff Dyer.

Going on holiday to read might seem weird to some, but I want, one day, to stay in the Library Hotel in New York, where the rooms contain books according to the Dewey Decimal System. Or there is Gladstone's Library in Wales, an actual library with more than 250,000 books, which also offers beds and meals.

As Harvard classics professor Richard F. Thomas puts it: "One of the powerful functions of a library - any library - lies in its ability to take us away from worlds that are familiar and comfortable and into ones which we can neither predict nor control, to lead us down new roads whose contours and vistas provide us with new perspectives."

Substitute the word "library" in the quote above with "travel", and the meaning still stands. Some people want hotels to be their home away from home. In the hotel library, I seek another gateway. Or should that be a getaway?

clarac@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 31, 2013

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