The Lives of Books

What constitutes a ‘good’ book is ornery. There are so ways to argue it, none less valid than the next. It’s why I hesitate when recommending books to others, because the same book can be many things to people.

I recently came across this quote:

It holds some truth, I think; sometimes a book is really good, and sometimes it really is about timing.

Many of my ‘good’ books are Star Trek books. In hindsight, I can’t quite understand why, since some of them weren’t actually any good.

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I discovered Star Trek at a near-perfect confluence of its availability in Singapore. Star Trek: The Next Generation was on cable after school (ST: Voyager would follow, a year or two later) and we finally had broadband.

Most importantly, I was surrounded by bookstores that had an alarming number of Star Trek books. The well-worn Pocket Books paperbacks from the secondhand bookstore shared pride of shelf space with the shiny new releases from the now-defunct Borders at Wheelock Place.

It was at Borders that I stumbled upon Tales from the Captain’s Table and The Lives of Dax. If Star Trek had been an eye-opener, these were the books that stopped my eyes from ever closing again.

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Here were short stories that delved into the possibilities of ST beyond its main series. We’d use the term expanded universe now, but I didn’t have that word back then. All I knew was that it was amazing.

As much as I loved Picard, a bald middle-aged white man wasn’t the fictional self that this particular 9-year-old Asian girl was looking for.

But in Captain’s Table and Dax, for the first time in the Star Trek universe, perhaps even for the first time in my entire short life, I saw women protagonists in the spotlight, exploring the universe and coming across conflict from human and alien alike.

And in them, I saw myself. I saw that I could do anything, that I had a place in this amazing future.

That’s a powerful thing to discover, when you’re 9 years old.

It’s why we still need diverse books. It’s a belief that I’ve always held, even if I still don’t know how to articulate it or how to un-learn my privilege.

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I lost these two books over the years; perhaps lost in a move or accidentally donated. But over the last decade and a half, I’ve never forgotten about them. I’d underestimated their impact on my younger self. I would always regret losing them.

By the time I was old enough to afford online bookstores, they had long gone out of print. When I could find them, they were far too expensive. I was bereft. Perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be. But one late night a few weeks ago, I found myself staring at Better World Books and their impressive selection of old, affordable books.

What if…?

And there they were. Condition: Used Good. At a price within reach.

Yes.

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It’s entirely possible that I’m in love with the memory of these books and not the actual stories in them. I’m entirely prepared that they aren’t as good as I make them out to be.

But that’s okay. Maybe most of what makes a book good, is that we’re reading it at the right moment in our lives.

That right moment might be when you’re 9 or 25. It might be when you’re looking for reassurance that you’re more than just a single cog in a very big machine.

The right book, at the right moment, might remind you that people like you can be the hero of a story that’s bigger than you.

Maybe that’s what makes a book ‘good’.

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