My dysfunctional relationship with books

A tale in three parts.

Back in November, when my coming-to-back-to America was still new, I went to the Swampscott Public Library with my mom. She was going to return some books, and I was going to borrow some – the disease of anti-accumulation, nomadic ways were still coursing through my blood. The American “buy, don’t borrow” ethic had not yet been reintroduced.

Here’s what happened:

From the bright, chilly November afternoon we step inside the fluorescent dimness of the library. Behind the desk, two middle-aged checkout managers (I’m sure they’re not actual librarians) sit, gossiping. My mom turns into the room on the right, where the pulp and other fiction lives. I go in the other direction, to nonfiction. I am looking for a reference book about travel in Mongolia, a “how to start a home business,” and…well, when I’m in a bookstore, I just like to browse around, to let books surprise and delight me.

Standing on the threshold of the reference room, I’m disoriented by wave of nostalgia, of musty stacks, of card catalogues. Worse, like a flashback to a fumbling, pre-adolescent first kiss, I recall that there’s a code-like numbering system at work here. The Dewey Decimal System, used by libraries to organize nonfiction books, represent what navigating the internet would be like using only IP addresses. Looking for a book at Amazon? Visit (or, or 3, or…) Bob’s BBQ Shack? 221.54.342.6. Easy, right?

As I search in vain for the giant, well-lit sign that will show me to the business section, a spunky librarian approaches and chirps, “Can I help you find something?”

No! I don’t want to explain what I’m looking for. I want to browse, to engage in a leisurely stroll through the aisles, to happen upon the right book, plus a half-dozen others. I want to run my eyes along the crisp spines of the books, drinking in their titles, guessing their cover art from the font and spine design, scan for familiar names or compelling titles.

Around me, retirees are checking email on old Dells with flesh-colored CRT monitors. Another librarian plods behind a wooden cart of books to be re-shelved. When I was in the third grade, I volunteered as a re-shelver in my elementary school library. My skill at filing away words based on a system of numbers was a source of great pride at the time.

“I’m looking for the business books?” I sputter, so flummoxed that I add the question mark. Thirty years on, my brain is trying to dig up old Dewey. But he lies hidden beneath layers of real life. It’s been at least 15 years since I’ve even been in a library.

“Oh, those are downstairs,” she explains, leading me to what looked like a fire door tucked into a corner. I peek through the wire-mesh reinforced window. A sad little stairwell, the kind you would find in an elementary school in the 70’s, leads to the basement.

Two months later, I spent $43 on books at – mostly in the used/discounted section. At least one of my purchases was an impulse buy – my version of a candy bar (“Everything Bad is Good for You,” by Steven Johnson). The rest were in some way related to Papua New Guinea. I swear.
Just before I left for PNG, I spent part of the afternoon in one of my favorite places, the Barnes & Noble on Union Square in New York.

I went to do some research – to pull books off the shelf, sit in one of the reading chairs lined up by the floor-to-ceiling windows, and read. I did more than that, of course. I couldn’t resist pausing by the tables at the front of the store, browsing the latest fiction and non-fiction. I wandered the travel section – a terrible habit that has had life-changing consequences for me. I finally sat, with a stack of travel lit and diver porn (glossy, photo-heavy fish-ID books). As I worked my way through the pile, the sun dipped below the NYU buildings on Union Square West. At least three homeless people (who come in to get warm and sleep), were evicted by impatient but kind B&N staff. I’m lost in my world, in a sea of books, with my people around me – fellow NYers who are also using this place as their library. Not many leave with books they intend to buy, but a few do. I didn’t.

Along the deep window ledges, stacks of books left by the B&N readers sit, waiting to be re-shelved – alphabetically, within clearly labeled sections.

On further reflection…

I keep thinking about the negativity in my past few posts. I’m out here in the world, seeing new places, meeting new people, doing what I love to do! Why all the complaints?

A big part of it is the tourist/traveler tension. In roughest terms, someone on a 2-week holiday is a tourist: You see the sites, eat the local specialties, take lots of photos, and go home happy. Someone on a year-long trip is more of a traveler: You read the history and literature, you learn the language, you get off the beaten track, you have the option to stop and hang out for a while.

The observable differences between the two are fewer than most long-trippers would like to admit. “I’m not a tourist,” they sniff. “I’m a traveler.” Whatevah. See you on the shuttle to the local shrine, along with all the other tourists wearing zip-off trouser-to-shorts cargo pants.

The difference is in frenzy. Tourists have little time to see/do everything, so they rush about during frenzied, tightly scheduled days and go to bed exhausted. Travelers have little time to absorb what they see/do; their minds are frenzied. Tourists can reflect on their trip to China in a leisurely fashion back at home, but travelers must try to think deeply about a place in the moment; tomorrow, after all, is a new country, a new culture, a new language.

By this definition, I am a traveler by disposition, and suffer the consequences. But new China doesn’t let people be travelers. Foreigners can’t drive here. Many mountains, lakes and other beautiful places now *charge admission*, the proceeds from which are used to build chairlifts and offer themed rides and other horrors that spoil the very nature we’re being charged to see. No wonder I feel so uncomfortable here.

Following this tangent for a bit: let’s talk about the Disney-fication of China. Most travelers I’ve met have commented on it. The best-known example is of the hutongs in Beijing. These traditional inner-city neighborhoods were the lifeblood of the city…and tourist attractions. But the Chinese government chose to tear them down (for political reasons as well as simple short-sightedness, I’d imagine). Now the government is scrambling to rebuild some – newer! better! cleaner! with tour guides and shopping! But they miss the point: hutongs were interesting to tourists as a glimpse into real life, an older way of life, a different life. They were a chance to get lost, slam into the odor of their public toilets, see old men playing MahJong with their lifelong neighbors, etc.

Here in Xian I met Ben, a native of Taiwan, now an American citizen splitting time between LA and Hong Kong. Like the Chinese-Singaporean I had met on the train to Ulaan Bataar, he was eager to explain and defend many aspects of China which I find distasteful. He said the Chinese government is learning – slowly – that foreign tourists do not (for the most part) want Disney-China. In the past, he says, it created experiences for Chinese tourists. And these Chinese tourists, he continues, are similar to the caricatured Japanese tourists of 25 years ago: They travel in controlled our groups, with cameras, obediently boarding buses and eating buffets on cue. They *want* Disney.

Now the Chinese government is learning, Ben continued, that foreigners don’t want a sanitized, easy-to-digest, manufactured version of the country. I smiled and nodded at him, but I don’t believe it; the senseless destruction of Chinese heritage continues apace. See: Kashgar.

[Please note that I’m not saying that hutong residents shouldn’t get modern plumbing and internet if they want it; in fact, if they want to knock down their homes and replace them with ugly concrete modern high-rises, so be it. But it’s not the residents that choose; it’s the government. And the residents of the “modern” tourist-hutongs are turned into human zoo attractions, forced to put signs on their doors that say, “This is a private residence. Please do not enter. Respect our privacy.”]

Indeed, as China destroys the artifacts of its cultural heritage it has no soul to replace it with. I *thought* I had written an earlier post about my (unsuccessful) search for Chinese funk, but I can’t find it in my archives. Anyway, I had a whole thing about how there’s no FUNK here, how the Chinese artists at the 798 Art Space in Shanghai, and musicians like Carsick Cars (“just like Sonic Youth!” said a promoter at a concert I attended) are the definition of derivative. I’ve seen no originality or uniqueness in the 7-ish weeks I’ve spent here.

Lo and behold, my instincts were dead-on! Read this article in the NYT, about the 60th anniversary of the PRC: “On Day for China Pride, Little Interest in Ideology”.
A short quote:

“…ask Mr. Xie to explain China’s core values β€” not what his country achieved, but what it stands for β€” and he is dumbstruck, a student called on in class to report on the book he forgot to read.

“The ability of China to adapt,” he said after a long silence. “To learn from the West.” And, in a phrase that sounds plucked from a pamphlet, β€œthe diligence and industriousness of the laboring masses.”

(italics added by me)

I could go on and on here – is it the end of political ideology around the world? After all, America seems to have lost its own centering ideology, its politics having devolved into sniping and mutual obstruction. And remember the Russian business-school administrator I wrote about earlier, who said that her country is also searching for a guiding philosophy.

These are the questions on my mind. They make me want to read more books, by clever people with PhDs in history and/or sharp, witty insights. Instead I’m stuck with what I can scrape together from hostel book-exchanges (trash) and Chinese English-language bookstores (American and British classical literature). I would give my left arm for 30 minutes in Idlewild or a free Malaysian delivery from

But but but…

This morning I went to see Esther, who is back in NYC after her cosmonaut adventure. As always, lovely to chat with her!

On my way home I stopped at The Strand bookstore to try to find a cheap used Russian phrasebook. In hindsight, I realize that I’m kinda a moron for thinking I could actually leave a bookstore without buying anything (they didn’t have the phrasebook). I am not a shopper or a buyer of superfluous things, but I am a pathological buyer (and reader!) of books. In this case, Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (For the long Trans-Siberian trip! I convinced myself). In typical fashion, on my upcoming expedition my luggage will consist of 10 lbs of clothes and toiletries and 15 lbs of books. My back aches in anticipation.

None of this is particularly out of the ordinary. But while perusing the charmingly disorganized 18 miles of books, I suddenly realized that I NEED MORE TIME before I go: I want to read them all – all the Dickens and Bowles and Dostoevsky and everything else that I should have read by now and haven’t. I wanted the rhyming dictionary. And the colorful guide to the world’s subway systems. WHY HAVEN’T I READ THE RUSSIAN POETS YET? WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?

Stricken with panic, I averted my eyes from the shelves and tables and made for the checkout counter.

Just another existential panic attack to endure before I leave!