An Interview with Albert Wan, owner of Bleak House Books

“If anyone knows of a pub that has draught stout, open fires, cheap meals, a garden, motherly barmaids and no radio, I should be glad to hear of it, even though its name were something as prosaic as the Red Lion or the Railway Arms.”

-George Orwell, ‘The Moon Under Water’ (1946)

Back when I was studying in the UK, I would notice how many more second-hand bookstores there were when compared to Hong Kong. Sure, you’d see the familiar signs of Waterstones and Foyles in the city centre (think Commercial Press and the former Page One in HK), but people would often go to charity shops, indie bookstores and Sunday markets for the hidden gems, like out of print works, first editions or even unpublished papers.

PrintRecently, I came across the website of an independent second-hand English bookseller called ‘Bleak House Books’, which immediately caught my attention with its nod to Charles Dickens.

The owner, Albert Wan, is a former civil rights lawyer from the US, and he is dedicated to selling “books that people want to read” and building “the best selection of used books in Hong Kong: literature, non-fiction, essays, cookbooks and children’s”. For now, Albert is running his store online, as well as selling second-hand books at pop-up shops and weekend markets all over Hong Kong.

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Why I’ve been MIA these few months

CLIFF: Anytime I want to, I can close my eyes and call it back. Then it’s like I’m really back there and I can practically hear that field buzzing. In a way, it’s like I never left that field. In a way – it’s like I can’t.

(The single light fades, and bright summer sunshine fills the stage. Dorothy is on the ground, reading a book.)

-The Land of Cockaigne, David Ives (1995)

In the past few months, I’ve taken a brief hiatus from this blog to focus on sorting my life out living.

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Retrospective: 2016 – A Poem in 3 Acts

As I take my digital labour of love – Classic Jenisms – into 2017, I have decided to take part in my first WordPress Discover Challenge.

In the spirit of a brand new year, the challenge is titled ‘Retrospective’, and the Editors are asking us bloggers to “look back over our past years’ worth of blogging… to build on or synthesize our best work of 2016”. Since I’ve only ever published prose on this blog, I figured that it’d be a nice change for me to write a ‘found’ poem using lines from my 10 most popular posts to date. For ease of reference, I have hyperlinked all of the lines to their original posts.

I hope you enjoy it, and in contrary to my customary urge of offering ‘literary critique’, I will leave you, dear readers, to ‘interpret’and glean from it whatever you will. 🙂

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6 surprising things I learned about New York in 6 days

new-colossusNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

– Emma Lazarus, ‘The New Colossus’ (1883)

Have you ever experienced moments in life when you feel restless and reckless, like there’s something you’ve always wanted to do but haven’t yet got round to doing because of [insert excuse 1][excuse 2][excuse 3]?

For all the stultifying effects that a life of routine poses on the mind, thoughts of reckless abandon hit me on a regular basis, but if I were to act on them every time they came knocking on the door of my consciousness, I would probably be the poster child of millennial bohemianism by now, living like a troglodyte in a ranch ten thousand feet below some random Idahoan mountain for half a year and jet setting in a perennially airborne state for the other half, courtesy of parentally accumulated mileage points and savings.

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This is a book you will either love or hate

“Life’s great happiness is to be convinced we are loved.”

– Victor Hugo, Les Miserables (1862)

Among the many types of mental fallacies, confirmation bias has got to be my favourite. Mostly because I’m so often guilty of it. Confirmation bias means the tendency to seek out information that validates your assumptions and beliefs, in the process screening out those which don’t.

The example most relevant to this blog would be my awareness of a constant uncanny ‘echoing’ between my daily reading and my daily living, which I’ve written about here and here and here.

As much as I’d like to think of myself as some Minister of Literary Humanism, deep down I suspect that these ‘coincidences’ are less so manifestations of an uncanny ritual, as they are simply a testament to the fact that I read a lot of humanistic fiction, which, of course, is made up of events drawn from this activity called human living.

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3 things I learned from reading 50 books in 15 months

“Your library is your paradise.”

– Desiderius Erasmus, circa 1520s

“I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

– Jorge Luis Borges, 1955

When Henry James dissed Victorian novelists for writing “large, loose baggy monsters”, he kind of had a point: in an age where distractions abound, the idea of spending time on the nitty-gritty ins and outs of imagined people does seem quite cavalier. What is the use, what is the point, what is the objective end goal target achievable of reading fiction etc etc.

And yet, utilitarian checklists, dull and soul-sucking as they may be to some, are beautiful in their slavishness to time efficiency. As such, the combo of boxes-and-ticks is often the boon of corporate-minded souls, or just people who find solace in structure and reassurance in the regimental.

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