Booked Out: When you want diverse books, but they're out of print

  • Books
  • Saturday, 01 Jun 2019

Get the Sunday Star paper tomorrow (June 2) for a 25% discount coupon on ‘1001 Books To Read Before You Die’, when you buy the book at Kinokuniya Bookstores, Suria KLCC. Look for the coupon in StarLifestyle.

In January 2019, I made a resolution to widen the diversity of my reading pool for this column. This meant that besides reading the titles listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, I also combed that list to specifically find books that fit this description of “diverse reads”.

I decided that this would mean not just that I would try to steer away from books by those “important” writers who largely tend to be white men, but also that I would consciously try to include books that weren’t from the typically Western, English-speaking world.

Little did I know when I made that list, how complicated a task this would be. Turns out, it is one thing for the books to be included in a list of must-reads. It is completely another for interested readers to actually find a copy of many of these titles.

Diverse books by non-Western writers are difficult to find
Diverse books by non-Western writers are difficult to find in print.

Since we do try to have a discount coupon every month with the book that I talk about, part of the challenge was settling on novels that were actually being sold in sufficient numbers in Kinokuniya Bookstores. But even when I put that requirement aside, there was also the challenge of finding the books anywhere at all.

So while I was initially very proud of my initial list of books to read – picked with special attention to reflect female writers, under-represented cultures, and different regions in the world – I was soon dismayed to discover that I just couldn’t get my hands on at least half of them.

In some cases, the titles were out of print altogether. With others, there were editions from a while ago still nominally available online, but usually for a fairly steep price. This extended to e-book versions as well.

There was Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary Of The Kazhars, translated from the original Serbian and presented like cross-referenced encyclopaedi, and released in two editions – one “male” and one “female”. There was Mariama Ba’s So Long A Letter, because I had never read work by a Senegalese writer before.

There was also Chaka by Thomas Mofolo, a mythic retelling of a Zulu emperor. And then there was Leaden Wings, by Zhang Jie, which sparked controversy in China when it was published in 1980, for its progressive feminism and open critique of the government.

One could perhaps argue that I didn’t put in every effort to locate these titles. I didn’t paw through secondhand bookstores, I wasn’t willing to spend more than a particular amount, and I didn’t reach out to institutions like libraries or universities that may have copies tucked away.

But that’s just point: one shouldn’t have to. The average bookstore still overflows with Charles Dickenses and F. Scott Fittzgeralds. And many books from the United States and Britain continue to sit on shelves well past their relevance. Yet, many books by writers from outside of this sphere – even the ones so lauded that some people think you absolutely must read them before you die – seem to fade all too quickly.

Books go out of print when their publishers decide there isn’t enough of a demand. Similarly, bookstores might choose not to stock a particular title if they think it isn’t likely to sell. But one of the ways that I used to discover new books and authors was by stumbling upon them in bookstores. So if these so-called “diverse” books aren’t even there in the first place, how will they get discovered by potential readers – and, thus, increase demand for a particular title?

And if we don’t get to read, discuss, and dissect these books the way we do the more traditional treasured classics, how will they ever legitimately take their place within the global literary canon?

Booked Out columnist Sharmilla Ganesan is radio presenter/producer and culture writer. She is currently reading her way through the titles in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at or Tweet @SharmillaG.

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