Rhyme And Reason- A Literary Series

Serendipitous finds spark my romance with books in hotels

Books in hotel libraries can take your mind on vacations as rich as the physical journey of your travels

The things that mark our memory of places we once visited are often unexpected and unpredictable.

Sometimes it is a historical fact: The hotel you stayed at is next to Wat Thmei, a former Khmer Rouge detention centre and present-day home to Siem Reap's Killing Fields memorial.

Sometimes it is a photograph: sunlight tiptoeing across the Laccadive Sea before it fuses with the white of the waves that crash on to the seawall of Galle Face Green.

Sometimes it is a book with opening lines you wished you had written: "How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning, patiently, like a weaver at his loom. I should like to say, 'This is the place to start; there can be no other…'"

And so, that was how my recent three-year-old romance with hotel libraries began, with those words from an unfamiliar book by an unfamiliar name plucked out from a cupboard of familiar titles that formed the library of a boutique hotel just outside the town centre of Siem Reap in 2013.

Amid books by Dan Brown and Jodi Picoult (if memory serves me correctly), it was West With The Night by Beryl Markham that caught the eye.


Perhaps it was the title or perhaps it was the cover photograph of a woman in a pilot's helmet that first drew my attention.


  • A former journalist and magazine editor, Phan Ming Yen is the author of a collection of short fiction, That Night By The Beach And Other Stories For A Film Score (2012) and one of the four writers of The Adopted: Stories From Angkor (2015). His writing has appeared in Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and he was also a contributor to Singapore Soundscape: Musical Renaissance Of A Global City (2014). He is, at present, director of Global Cultural Alliance, a non-profit cultural and creative enterprise.


    That Night By The Beach And Other Stories For A Film Score (Ethos/2012)

    "The author's perceptive observations of the moral ambivalence we feel and the conflicts of conscience we all undergo in such situations is a distinct quality of this collection … " - Hong Kong-based online literary journal Cha on Phan's set of short fiction inspired by Western classical music and centred on the themes of loss and betrayal.

    The Adopted: Stories From Angkor (collaborative work with Heng Siok Tian, Yeow Kai Chai and Yong Shu Hoong) (Ethos/2015)

    Phan's contribution to this collection, inspired by a holiday to Siem Reap, is five domestic horror short stories. The collection was ranked No. 2 on mothership.sg's 8 Must-Read Singaporean English Fiction And Poetry Books Of 2015.

    From A "Pioneer Town" To A "Cosmopolitan City": Music From 1866 To 1899 in Singapore Soundscape: Musical Renaissance Of A Global City (ed. Jun Zubillaga-Pow & Ho Chee Kong) (NLB/2014)

    Professor Bernard Tan, in his foreword to the book, called Phan's article "a valuable account" on Western classical music activities in 19th century Singapore.

    • All books are available for loan in the National Library. That Night By The Beach And Other Stories For A Film Score and The Adopted: Stories From Angkor are available at Books Kinokuniya.

There was no author's biography to indicate who Markham was. There was only a back cover blurb by Nobel Prize-winning novelist Ernest Hemingway stating that Markham could "write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers" and, the rhythm of those opening lines, to attract the reader: "How is it possible to bring order out of memory? I should like to begin at the beginning..."

An immediate online search on Markham (1902-1986) had revealed her to be an aviation pioneer. In 1936, she was the first woman to fly the Atlantic solo from east to west. She was born in England but grew up and died in Kenya. She was well-known as an aviator and socialite, before living out the remainder of her life as a racehorse trainer.

West With The Night was Markham's memoirs and her only book. Published at onset of World War II in 1942, it received critical praise before quickly going out of print. Public interest was on the war then.

The copy of West With The Night in the Siem Reap hotel was the 1983 edition by North Point Press. It was this reprint that resulted in a revival of interest in Markham during the late 1980s. That success gave Markham financial security during her last years.

There remains some controversy, however, despite a 2015 work of historical fiction and recent articles on Markham, about West With The Night. It has long been rumoured that it was written by Markham's third husband, Raoul Schumacher, a journalist and ghost writer.

Finding Markham's book left me with questions. How is the collection for a hotel library created? Is it curated or is it just a random mix of books left behind and donated by guests? What does it say about the hotel? Or is it more about what a guest can make out from its collection?

Here, a look at two hotel library collections while in Colombo, Sri Lanka, last month was for me a lesson in what novelist and essayist Alberto Manguel once described as "an uninterrupted association of titles".

The first was that of the library of Havelock Place Bungalow - considered by Sri Lankan weekly The Nation as Colombo's first boutique hotel - where I stayed.

Housed within a large wooden cabinet with three shelves, the collection at first appeared to me primarily as consisting mainly of barely remembered thrillers from the 1970s and 1980s: Duncan Kyle's (1930-2000) Black Camelot, about a Nazi secret weapon, and Duncan L. Green's (1927-1999) Dragons At The Gate, about a conspiracy to "incite international upheaval" and a "coveted Japanese treasure trove lost since World War II".

Then, amid all these, a book titled The Hill Of Evil Counsel by one Amos Oz stood out. This was perhaps because Oz's name seemed familiar. I thought I had seen that name in bookshops in the 1970s and 1980s, when I was still a student. But I paid no further attention to it, thinking the book to be another thriller (or horror novel) until my travelling companion took it out to read.

He said: "Don't you know Amos Oz?"

No, I did not. I did not know that Oz is regarded as Israel's most famous living writer today.

Then, I realised I knew nothing about Israeli literature. I was also reminded that just as a title can entice, it can also result in a misconception that, in my case, reveals one's ignorance.

The second was the library of the historic Galle Face Hotel, which is listed in 1000 Places To See Before You Die.

Located on the second level, the library's collection is kept in two wooden cabinets (one taller than the other) and on the top of two drop-leaf writing desks.

Here, the eye is immediately drawn to the smaller of the two cabinets, on which a bust of renowned science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke stands. Although born in England, Clarke (1917-2008) immigrated to Sri Lanka in 1956 and was awarded awarded Sri Lanka's highest civil honour, Sri Lankabhimanya, in 2005.

Given Clarke's stature, one would readily make the association that this cabinet would hold books of some literary significance.

On its top shelf, the most visible title was Bill Clinton's voluminous autobiography My Life, which was placed next to a hardcover copy of John Buchan's 1916 World War I adventure Greenmantle which, in turn, stood next to a 1959 edition of Thomas Hardy's Under The Greenwood Tree.

Two Russian works followed. The first was a hardcover with the words on the spine faded so that one had to flip it open to find out its title, an undated edition of the third part of The Road To Life (An Epic Of Education) by Russian and Soviet educator and writer A. S. Makarenko (1888-1939) published by the now-defunct Foreign Languages Publishing House of the former Soviet Union.

The second, a 1950s paperback Penguin Classics edition of three plays by Anton Chekhov with a signature of its former owner - which I made out to be "S. Nihal Seneviratne" - on the cover.

After my return to Singapore, I learnt two things from an online search: S. Nihal Seneviratne was the former secretary-general of the Parliament of Sri Lanka, and Chekhov once visited Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known) in 1890. Chekhov completed his short story Gusev in Colombo.

This "mesh of associations" (to borrow Manguel's words) is perhaps keeping in tradition with the hotel's memory of great writers who once stayed there: Mark Twain (1898), Arthur Conan Doyle (1920), D. H. Lawrence (1922), E. M. Forster (1923), George Bernard Shaw (1930s).

Back in Siem Reap in 2013, my wanting to buy West With The Night had given me an occasion to talk to the hotel owner.

I offered him a price. He accepted and then said that the hotel stands on former Killing Fields ground. Workers had found human bones when they were building the hotel.

In Manguel's meditation on libraries, The Library At Night, he wrote: "Our experience builds on experience, our memory upon other memories. Our books build on other books."

Indeed, whether you learn about an Israeli writer in Colombo or find a literary connection between Russia and Sri Lanka or discover a forgotten aviator in Siem Reap, a single book in a hotel library can sometimes unexpectedly and unknowingly mark your memories of places you visit.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2016, with the headline 'Serendipitous finds spark my romance with books in hotels'. Print Edition | Subscribe