In this age of broadband hook-ups and instant Web searches, traditional book stores must be hard-pushed to keep up with the rapid flow of ideas. Not everyone has time to visit a bookshop, and we may already feel swamped by the amount of information flowing down the line to our personal computers. But if you're too busy to go to the books, what if they come to you?
That's what happened last week when MV Doulos, a floating book fair with discount books for sale, docked on the resort island of Phuket, its first stop on a tour of Thailand. The ship was carrying around half a million books, including many multiple copies of the same title. It's one of two vessels owned by the Christian missionary charity Gute Bucher fur Alle ('good books for all'), based in Germany. They regularly ply the world's oceans, promoting education and cultural exchange. Doulos is due to spend nearly three weeks docked in Phuket, before heading to the Gulf of Siam.
Naturally, the choice of books on board is weighted towards Christianity and educational titles, including some translated into local languages, but there are other reading choices, too. The Doulos is a regular traveller through the Middle East and Africa, and has managed to convince Muslim countries that it's not about to try proselytising all and sundry. No doubt the 320 crew members would like to tell you more about their faith: but they don't mind if you're just looking for a book to pass the time.
The Doulos is a ship with its own salty stories to tell. Built in 1914, two years after the launch of the Titanic, it's the world's oldest seafaring passenger vessel. It has had several revamps and extensions over the years, and changed hands on a few occasions, but is still doing the rounds.
Phuket last sighted the Doulos in 1986, on a previous tour of Thailand. This time, the deputy governor was on hand to greet the crew and open the book display to the public. Adults pay a small fee to browse through the books, while children get in free. It sounds like a good way to lure a wayward child to the educational value of books - with the promise of a trip aboard a big ship.
Given the ease of posting information online, the idea of sailing the seas under a Christian flag seems like a curious historical footnote. Surely it would be easier to spread the word with a mouse click than a floating bookstore?
But it's also easy to forget that most people in the world don't have a phone, let alone a computer hook-up or local internet cafe that would bring them to the information superhighway. In many corners of the world, books and literature are valuable commodities, and nobody has ever heard of amazon.com. So, when a ship sails into town promising to sell books for a song, it's got to be worth a look.