Commentary: The great book revival in Singapore during the COVID-19 pandemic

SINGAPORE: In Roman mythology, Janus is the god of doors, portals and transitions. This reference is not only to physical gateways but to spatial, emotional, psychological and metaphorical space.

It is often depicted on a coin or in a portrait as having two sides, but each facing the opposite direction. One faces the past, the other the future. If it represents opposites, it also represents movement from one space to another, therefore the transitional dimension.

You may have seen his icon displayed in theaters and theaters, with his faces expressing joy and sadness. It is the nature of the duality that exists in our human condition.

But he is not without hope, for in his right hand he holds a key to signify that a traveler has come to take shelter in a safe harbor.

If you look at what has happened throughout the period of the COVID-19 pandemic, you can feel that the huge storm that shocked the world is starting to abate slightly.

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The global toll is uneven, but several countries are opening their borders and moving from the pandemic to the endemic stage.

Singapore is still on heightened alert. But the change is definitely coming with the intensification of vaccinations, testing and contact tracing. Janus announces the transitional stage.


Changing rituals and everyday circumstances, such as work and home schooling, have made personal space more valuable. Especially, in a country where the majority live in HDB apartments with confined spaces, it has been difficult to stay at home.

This caused people to show both faces of Janus, one of anger and fear, even xenophobia, the other of heartwarming kindness to others.

There is an old adage that says stone walls don’t make a prison. We may have had to stay home more often than we wanted to in recent months, but a prison is not due to tight spaces but the closing of the soul to new, stimulating, thought-provoking experiences. and contemplation of nurses.

Because we can also become prisoners in our minds. Watch TV, HBO, Netflix, etc. is an escape. This can take us out of the confinement of our homes for a while and give us a bit of a break.

A lot of people have therefore binge-watchered. But there is a limit to the number of hours you can spend in front of a screen, before your eyes are cloudy.

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(Photo: Unsplash / Charles Deluvio)

As more meetings and events are held online, on Zoom and other platforms, many suffer from screen fatigue.


This is why books are making such an impressive comeback. The UK found last year that people doubled the time they spent reading books during the lockdown, with fiction book sales increasing 16% despite bookstores shutting down.

Interestingly, physical printed books are in higher demand than eBooks, perhaps because eBooks are still screen-based.

Personally, for me, an e-book does not offer the tactile comfort of a printed book. Perhaps the interaction with the paper of a tree that breathed life has an energy that cannot be reproduced by inert electronic device.

Owner of Closetful of Books, Ms. Denise Tan says, “If we can’t travel, books allow us to. Indeed. Although we cannot physically travel, the world in the books does not close their borders. They stay open so that we can walk around and explore.

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Although our physical body is confined, our mental and psychological aspects of our being are free and free to roam the wonderful worlds created by the story we read.

It is this feeling of freedom given by books that many people are discovering or rediscovering. It is only by reading these books that one can feel free.

And it’s by exploring new worlds that this inner journey helps people find what they’ve always been looking for in everything they watch, do, and hope for: themselves.


Bookstores that can quench this urgent hunger are seizing the opportunity. New Chinese bookstore Zall opened in Orchard in February.

In Singapore, bookshops, such as Books Actually, Woods in the Books, Chio Books, Closetful of Books, some of them have traded their physical bookstores for online platforms and are making healthy sales.

Zall Bookstore

(Photo: Instagram / zallbookstore)

Their owners have a verve and a passion for books. They don’t treat them as just a commodity to generate income, but present them as portals to a myriad of adventure, magic, and creative expansion. Readers are invited not only to buy, but to discover a book.

Denise tells me, “An independent bookstore is nimble enough to find new ways to get books into the hands of readers.

Like other independent booksellers, Closetful of Books plays an active role in reaching its readers. Denise and her team organized book fairs in schools.

They have been proactive in distributing the books to students who may not have the inclination to travel to Orchard Road to browse the big bookstores. They have interacted face to face with the children and can determine their reading interests, then match them with the right books to keep them coming back.

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They encourage authors to go to schools to talk fervently about their books so that children can see that inside the covers of the books, stories come to life and are not just dead texts.

During this pandemic period, due to movement restrictions and crowd sizes, Denise operates a similar online service, virtual book fairs to continue this dynamic interaction.

She acts as a book advisor to parents and libraries to recommend a range of books that will whet their children’s appetite for reading and stimulate their imaginative capacity.

The best-selling bookstores here are the ones that cater to their potential readers, embracing them not only as buyers, but as a community that loves to read and share stories, like in the kampong days.

Book cabinet at Ang Mo Kio Primary School in 2019.

Book cabinet at Ang Mo Kio Primary School in 2019 (Photo: Facebook / Closet of Books)


The magic of reading books is its transformative quality.

Reading helps the reader to access their own creativity and imagination. Stuck at home, people felt the need to express their creativity.

The films encourage the imagination but in a more limited way because the visuals of the film, relating to the characters and the places, are interpreted and presented by their directors.

However, in books, if the writer presents the words to allow the reader to visualize the character and the place, it is the reader who brings his own creativity to invent the characters and places as he sees them. This is why reading a book is all the more satisfying.

The reader has an active role in the creative process of the story as it unfolds. Storytelling existed before stone tablets became books to read. Psychologists will tell you that the art of storytelling is an innate aspect of human life. Each of us tells stories about ourselves, ourselves and others.

This is why spiritual teachings try to teach you how to deal with the kind of story you tell yourself so that it stays positive and inspires great things in you.

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This pandemic has shown that life can be choked easily. We know we need to get the most out of our life, as long as we have the capacity.

We need to value our loved ones and others while we have them. We have to live our life the best we can. And if we can’t climb mountains, swim with dolphins, skydive or whatever, due to the limitations imposed, at least we can do it vicariously through stories and books.

Like Janus, who holds the key to a safe harbor, the books hold the key to our safe harbor. We can revel in our adventures and dreams, while being assured of a haven of peace in our own reading room.

Why not grab your key and open up to other exciting worlds?

Joséphine Chia is the author of numerous books, including the most famous Kampong Spirit: Gotong Royong, Goodbye My Kampong and the children’s edition, Growing Up in Kampong Potong Pasir, and more recently, Big Tree in a Small Pot.

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