Culture Vulture

The 10 books for the rest of my life

The books I hope to keep till the end of my life will be treasured for the stories behind them, not within the covers

How to fit an entire life into a single suitcase? That is the choice many elderly people face when they give up their homes to live in assisted- care facilities where they may have at most a single cupboard in a single room.

Considering this future, I survey the hundreds of books walling my bedroom.

Fifty years in the future, my 88-year-old self could probably handle 10 at most, in a pull-along suitcase. But which 10 and why is an e-reader not good enough?

Publishers find that sales of e-books have plateaued after the initial highs when big-ticket e-readers such as the Kindle were released almost 10 years ago.

Readers are returning to books with pages they can touch, turn and fold. A January report in Publishers Weekly said print book sales in the United States hit 674 million last year, marking the third straight year of growth. A report in the same trade journal, published last Friday, said sales of print books for the first six months of this year were 3 per cent higher than for the same period last year.

Christmas is boom time for book-buying, so this promises to be another good year for printed book sales.

A printed book has a unique personality, based on the paper it is made of and those who have left their marks and scents on the pages.

I keep hundreds of books because of the stories behind them, not within them. Each book is a tactile, scented memory of a place, time or person.

Unfortunately, towards the end of my life, I will have to choose among these memories.

It is a fact that older singles - even older couples - often have to move into smaller spaces. This is not because they are helpless. It is because older people who want to maintain their independence find a smaller space easier to manage.

Adults should start thinking early about how and where they want to live in the later decades of their lives. The late 30s and early 40s are a good time, especially as people in this age group often have to balance childcare and parental care.

On a related note, the two biggest drivers of print book sales in the US this year were Dr Seuss' Oh, The Places You'll Go!, an illustrated children's book; and the English translation of A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman, the heartwarming tale of an elderly widower's twilight years.

Books can help readers see and understand their lives. The books I keep in my eventually downsized life will do the same, while also being touchstones to my past. Here they are, in no particular order.

1 Children Of God by Mary Doria Russell (1998, Villard)

This is the sequel to Russell's The Sparrow, the first work of speculative fiction I ever read. When humanity receives radio signals from an alien world, a Jesuit mission heads to the new planet.

In Russell's two-part story, the mission either fails horribly or succeeds brilliantly, depending on the reader. The newcomers change the lives of the aliens forever, just as religious expeditions changed civilisations on Earth.

I bought both books from Books Kinokuniya, back when the library@orchard occupied the floor above the bookstore. I remember returning my library copy of The Sparrow and rushing down to the bookstore to buy my own. I did the same with Children Of God.

2 The Little World Of Don Camillo by Giovannino Guareschi (reissued in English in 2013 by Pilot Productions, numerous Italian editions)

My mother introduced me to this author, who is one of Italy's best.

Reading his stories of village life and discussing them with my mother made me feel like an adult. They still do.

3 An Extended Family Or Fellow Pilgrims by Apa Pant (1990)

This is a history of my mother's family, written by her father.

It helps me identify my relatives and reminds me that they are amazing individuals whose activism and work during the Indian struggle for independence shaped a new nation.

4 The Teenage Textbook by Adrian Tan (republished by Landmark Books)

I first discovered this comic romance for young adults in the library of my junior college.

That building no longer exists, since my JC moved away from Ghim Moh. The old edition helped me make sense of teenhood. The new edition brings back my past.

5 Maskerade by Terry Pratchett (1995, Victor Gollancz)

I love Pratchett's comic fantasy novels for his wicked observations on human behaviour.

I bought this at the now-closed MPH Building on Stamford Road. Holding the book reminds me of my weekly run - literally - from City Hall MRT station to the bookstore.

6 Reader's Digest Atlas Of The World (1987)

This hardcover atlas was my grandparents'. The detailed maps help me plot future journeys and revisit old trips.

7 World Tales selected by Idries Shah (1979, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich)

I date my love of visual art to the surreal illustrations in this hardcover collection of folktales. The book was gifted to me on my fourth birthday by my maternal grandparents. I still read it with delight.

8 Frederica by Georgette Heyer (written 1963, republished in 2013 by Arrow Books)

Heyer's Regency romances are still on the cutting edge of witty, feminist writing. My aunt and I fought over custody of this book for years before the hardcover fell apart. I was happy to find the new edition.

9 All Things Bright And Beautiful by James Herriot (1974, St Martin's Press)

I found this hardcover first edition of a childhood favourite in Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston in 2014. The next day, United Airlines cancelled my flight out. I was glad to have bought this book so I had something to read while waiting in airports.


This last book would be blank to remind me that I am moving on, not moving down, in my life. I plan to fill the pages with thoughts, jokes and adventures. The idea is that whoever inherits it after my death will keep it until her own as well.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 11, 2017, with the headline 'The 10 books for the rest of my life'. Print Edition | Subscribe