An ode to books

Books are my favourite objects. There is nothing more satisfying than flipping through a well made book. There are of course badly made books, too. But those books also deserve to be published. They nonetheless still add to the world’s knowledge.

The physical properties of a book make them great objects. A stack of paper, bound together on one edge, becomes a sequence of planes with tremendous potential for different reading patterns. This structure, though seemingly linear, actually offers infinite possibilities in terms of how it could be engaged with, and how the narrative is to be structured. Books can be anywhere from small, slim and light to large, thick and heavy. Whatever size or form, they are structurally captivating. The double-page spread is something quite unique. Two planes sit on either side of the gutter (spine) which acts as an axis to visually separate yet sequentially unite the recto and verso pages. A book is hence spatial and metaphorically architectural. (Is there an epistemological function to the codex format? This is worth looking into.)

The structural qualities of a book provides a unique canvas for which content inhabit. The content could be text, or any combination of text and images. The pages as units of measurement may be inconsequential as far as content is concerned – the text flows through the sequence of pages as if water fills a container. The pages become significant only where there are section or chapter breaks. Page units of course could work in tandem with the content, for example, with each double-page spread defined as picture planes in and of themselves. Narratives can visually unfold as images and text juxtapose and animate across spreads. The author and designer hence orchestrate the flow and pace of how the content is revealed to the reader, much like a director does to a film. A book is hence temporal.

Turning something into a book form miraculously transforms it into a unique work in its own right. Hence a manuscript of a book is not an actual book but a string of text, a document. Design transforms it into a book, along with the physical qualities.

Theoretically, say, one takes four sheets of A2-size paper with random content printed or drawn on both sides. Fold each sheet down three times into eight divisions of equal size. Stack these folded sheets together. Bind them together using threads and a needle, then trim on three sides. You now have a book with 64 pages slightly smaller than A5 size. The somewhat random content has now been given a sequential order, and has been transformed and given a new life in the form of a book.

The extent of a book varies depending on subject matter, genre and circumstances of use. Large volumes call for robust binding and content navigation. Regardless of the extent of a book, it is a closed object that defends itself against other book objects. It is a work of authorship that stands on its own. It can reference and contend the arguments of other books of course, and can equally be referenced and contended by others.

How about digital books? That tangible, spatial–structural quality of the codex is all but lost, and I would argue that we have not yet solved the spatial and temporal shortcomings of digital books, nor have we reinvented the codex format into a new medium altogether, never mind a whole new paradigm. Digital documents are still a far cry from physical books. Though hypertext as Tim Berners-Lee conceived it in 1989 was already a revolutionary paradigm shift, forever transformed our relationship with information, our sense of geography and our sense of self. While the codex as a physical format will continue to be remediated (imitated) in the digital ether that will soon take the form of the metaverse, the physical codex will remain as one of the most reliable, novel and persuasive ways to preserve and pass down human knowledge.

(Random thoughts to be continued and hopefully illustrated, here published in an incomplete form. Written on flights TK071 from Hong Kong to Istanbul and TK1907 from Istanbul to Zurich, using an iPhone 12 mini in Byword.)

The podcast, transcribed

In the previous post I posted the audio podcast and the script/notes that I had prepared ahead of time. Now, I’m posting a transcription of it. It was done automatically with, an excellent automatic transcription service. Though I had to edit extensively still, to edit out the ums and ahs and the you knows and I means. It’s not a verbatim transcript, as I’ve edited out the stuff that I thought was not relevant too, but it wasn’t a rewrite into a new thing, but something in between.

Transcription published in LinkedIn

A podcast and its script

I was invited by Thomas Girard of as a guest on his new audio podcast channel. The format is the same for all guests to his podcasts: they answer 20 preset questions. I emailed my responses to Thomas ahead of the recording session. I then printed it out, annotated it with additional things that I thought I might talk about (this document was referred to when answering question nine). Although I somewhat loosely followed the script during recording, I mostly ad-libbed throughout, and you’d find that I talked about a lot of things that aren’t written in the script prepared. Here are the scans of my notes.

Convert: text to speech

I rarely prepare speeches verbatim. Have always believed that speeches should be somewhat spontaneous, and I’m mostly happy to just ad-lib away. Reading a speech prepared verbatim beforehand usually makes it far too formal and contrived. Though I do find that holding a piece of paper calms my nerves. For this degree show address, I started writing short reminders for what I was going to say, but it turned out more like written prose than speech. In the end, the script became a crutch that disrupted the natural flow of my speech. Should have just memorised it.

Related post: Heinrich von Kleist: On the gradual completion of thoughts during speech

Couldn’t sleep and wrote this

There are a lot ongoing discussions about what makes Hong Kong Hong Kong, perhaps since the handover in 1997. A symptom of decolonisation. Yet at the same time there are a lot of discussions about cultural preservation, about keeping aspects of ‘The Real Hong Kong’ for prosperity, in case things change. Colonisation was a process; so too is decolonisation. Preserving and studying the past is certainly important at this juncture, but indulging in or consuming nostalgia is something else. There are no such things as ‘The Real Hong Kong’ or ‘The Real Hongkonger’. In fact one should be cautious of this way of thinking. Change is inevitable, and whether for better or worse is a matter of perspective. Whether one likes it or not, Hong Kong as a concept is continuously evolving. Waxing nostalgic does not get us anywhere. If I had to name one quality that has been eroding in Hong Kong since 1997, it would be its open-mindedness: its capacity to embrace different ideas, whether global, regional or from the Mainland. That pragmatic, flexible and versatile mindset placed us uniquely on the global stage. A global outlook opens us up to infinite possibilities as well as opportunities. An island mentality is stifling. This means considering Hong Kong in context of the rest of China, Asia and the world. The fact that we were brought up in colonial Hong Kong without a sense of nationality should be used to our advantage. We were once not afraid to not define ourselves. We grew up in a third culture: not exactly Chinese, not exactly British, but somewhere in between. This is manifested in our language, food, temperament, outlook and way of life. Rather than rushing to define ourselves, we could leverage this ambiguity to look into the future. What I have just written does not preclude the political reality of Hong Kong at the moment, and what happened here in 2014 and 2019. However challenging it might be, we need to face forward and step into the future with optimism.

(Woke up in the middle of the night and wrote this in Byword. The events of 2014 and 2019 have made Hongkongers either very heated or deepy lethargic towards conversations of this kind. I’ve probably not considered these ideas too carefully or from every possible angle. I’ll simply park my thoughts here, and let them percolate and evolve.)