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The Acquisition of Books Part 2: China Interlude

In which I am forced to discover what books I absolutely cannot live without for two years, and what books I will read when desperate.

Going to China to teach English for two years meant making agonizing choices: what to take, what to leave behind, whether it was better to have old favourites for comfort reading or to read things I might never have read otherwise. Now was my opportunity to read War and Peace! Proust!!

In fact, I ended up with a compromise: my absolute-cannot-live-withouts (Tolkien, and at that time the Riddle Master trilogy) and as many big fat books that I'd never read before that I could carry or stuff into a parcel. I took Nicholas Nickleby and David Copperfield and a Henry James and Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook and I can't remember what all else.

It's amazing how quickly you get through even tomes like Dickens' when there is a) no TV or b) little in the way of outside entertainment.

That was when the "acquisition" part of this post kicked in. The only place near where I was living (Tianjin) that you could get new English language books at that time was at the Beijing Friendship Hotel. Their collection was ... Catholic, to say the least, bearing in mind that they only sold things that didn't have any nasty ideas that might corrupt the populace. For some reason, they had Dornford Yates, so I read several of those. They had Rudyard Kipling's Kim which I thoroughly enjoyed and would still have, had not my next door neighbour broken into my rooms, and taken it for reading material on a trip, and then traded it for something on her travels. They had the entire Robert Ludlum oevre, so I cut a swathe through those. Every time anyone went to Beijing, they'd bring a book or two back, and those would then circulate through the entire Guest House. So we all read ALL the Robert Ludlums and used to make jokes about titles like The Fuwuyuan Conspiracy (fuwuyuans were the little girls who came every day to change our water thermoses and sweep the floors).

Books were traded, almost like currency. A really worthwhile book became an object of desire. Also we swapped them amongst ourselves, with the result that while I was in China I read Milan Kundera for the first time, and Midnight's Children and One Hundred Years of Solitude.

I have few books left now that I bought in China. An atlas of China that I sent to my father is still kicking around in a box somewhere. I have two beautiful boxed Chinese Classics: A Dream of Red Mansions and Journey to the West. Oh, and a pirated copy of Beatrix Potter in Chinese.
Tags: books, china, memoir, reading
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