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A Book Lover's Discourse

From left: Janice Yip, Eli Lau

It was in the summer of 1816, by Lake Geneva, that Mary Shelley, wife of the poet, wrote her masterpiece Frankenstein. In the story, the hideous progeny of Dr. Frankenstein stumbles across three books that stir his fledgling sensibility. They are Milton's Paradise Lost, Plutarch's Lives, and Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther.

While Lives is out of print, Paradise Lost and Young Werther can be conveniently found in the Signet Classics shelves in the University Bookstore. Such paperback avatars of Western classics are made available to young readers at very affordable prices.

Starting from 2012–13, the University Bookstore has been under the management of The Commercial Press. The University has also set up the Bookstore Management Sub-committee to help supervise its operation. Since then, a visit to the bookstore has come to mean different things on campus. Today it is rare that visitors to the University Bookstore would come away with only textbooks or stationery. Very often, book lovers come here for communicating with great minds past and present, East and West.

At the bookstore this writer came across new arrivals that had just been reviewed by academic journals, including a collection of letters of the Italian novelist Italo Calvino and Drawings by the American poet Sylvia Plath. The latter is known more for her poetry than her drawings. Putting Drawings on the shelf shows how knowledgeable, open-minded, and bold the bookseller is.

The bookstore is run by people who are both book lovers and professionals. Ms. Janice Yip, general manager of The Commercial Press, is an alumna of CUHK. She said that the CUHK store is bigger than other university bookstores they run and more demanding. They have been striving to source specialized titles in, say, medicine, architecture and the humanities, as well as stocking a wider spectrum of academic, cultural and social titles. However, she stressed that they are not entirely motivated by profit, but share the University's idea of whole-person education and want to help realize its mission.

The life of the late Steve Jobs was a hot topic a while ago, so it was not surprising to see Walter Isaacson's bestseller Steve Jobs in prominent places in the store. But this writer was pleasantly surprised to discover the works of Karl Popper and Bertrand Russell, and not just one or two volumes but a whole range of what should be made accessible to the general reader. Academic trends and thoughts have their ebbs and flows like fashion. Popper and Russell may have, unlike a generation or two ago, fallen out of favour with intellectually curious youngsters who do not necessarily read philosophy. But great minds like Popper and Russell should always stay at the top of the bestsellers list for readers of a young and impressionable age.

Ms. Eli Lau, deputy manager of the Retail Management Department, was aware that certain books and authors may not be in sufficient demand for stocking up. But as long as they are considered worthwhile, she insists that the bookstore will always have room for them.

This writer bought Steve Jobs and Postwar on the same day. Having heard so much about how the author of Postwar, the late Tony Judt, had given a highly readable account of the history of Europe from WWII to the 21st century, the moment this writer spotted this tome sandwiched between others on the history shelves, he knew he had no excuse not to give himself a makeup lesson on contemporary European history. A reader's serendipitous discovery of a good book depends very much on the biblio-matchmakers.

Both Janice and Eli observed that CUHK staff and students make the best readers. They do not just browse but stay long to look for and read original texts. Their wide knowledge, genuine interest and appetite for food for thought can be gauged from the enquiries they made of the shopkeepers which were often not easy to handle.

The University Bookstore also houses publications of other university presses, creating a reading ambience as academic as it is relaxed. It has used audio-visual devices to recommend new books from around the world. Book collectors may sometimes find a signed copy of value. From time to time the store organizes book launches, book club meetings, photo exhibitions, and special sales to cater for every need of a bibliophile. This is what a university bookstore should be like.