Sunday, December 10, 2006

At the Library
A little more than three years ago when I first crash landed in Shenzhen, fresh western reading material was extremely hard to come by. At the time I relied on subscriptions to Sports Illustrated and the New Yorker supplied by my doting father that, thanks to China Post, the mainland postal system, usually arrived 3 -to- 6 weeks late, if at all. And there were several gratefully received CARE packages (eternal gracias to Dad, Mattydred, Janeen!) that I fell upon and devoured like a baboon eating its young.

Shenzhen had one major book store. Like all the other large ones in China it was named Book City and owned by Xinhua, the PRC's major news/propaganda outlet. The English language section, such as it was/is was comprised largely of vocabulary and English learning books, some glorified outdated computer/software instruction manuals ("Open BEAGLE, version 0.16.1 (ALPHA) -- It's the Future for Six Months!"), dusty self-help and business tomes (still one of the largest selections in any English section at any book store here) pirated, mangled versions of bios such as The Bills: Clinton and Gates, and a smattering of "the classics," some abbreviated (Frankenstein or Moby Dick in 78 pages) and the others -- save Twain and a carefully combed selection of Hemmingway, Austen and DH Lawrence -- mostly a reading list of The Best of Wheezing, Tubercular Western Lit.

Indeed, I counted myself lucky to find Madame Bovary which I purchased and read halfway through until I went blind and it literally fell apart. Cheap bindings and pages printed in miniscule font on paper that makes tissue paper seem like cardboard are a constant. In between I relied on yellowing, tattered copies of mostly Brit-published thriller paperbacks passed from expat-to-expat-to-expat like illicit zamizdat before the Soviet Union held its closeout sale.

And so it came to pass that several months ago, a longtime SZ pal o' mine, James "The Temple Guy/Laughing Buddha" Baquet, told me about a new Shenzhen library and Book City. He swore up and down that the selection, while not up to that of Barnes and Noble or Denver's Tattered Cover, at both was miles ahead of what we'd encountered on splashdown. "There's even an English language magazine reading room at the library!" he babbled like a junkie who'd found a reliable, trustworthy source for his Ibogaine habit. "Rolling Stone! Harpers Atlantic I think I even saw a current Esquire!"

I initially and cynically dismissed his report as delusional. A native Angeleno and theme park freak, born on the same day as Disneyland opened, James is naturally given to illusion and false optimism. Then, prodded by C who was yearning to check out the "new" Book City, I made the plunge today.

What I found mostly astounded me. To whit, at the new Book City English store (a separate store!) while browsing through coffee table bios of Beatles and Elvis, 100 Best Erotic Internet Sites ("All blocked in China," I quipped to C, who replied, "Only 99 of them...") I picked up fresh paperback editions of Carl Hiaasen, TC Boyle and Martin Amis. Sure, sure, I could've also snagged Last of the Mohicans, and Ethan Frome but, hey, a man has his limits. Too much, too soon, too fast, moderation in all things etc. There were a few "typically Chinese" quirks to the place, though, enough to jolt me out of my reverie.

"Staff Picks" read the pre-printed cards pasted to the sides of the book racks, just like in London, New York or even Des Moines. There you get enthusiastic minimum-wage lit major store employees such as "Jason" or "Leigh" or "Ian" enthusing about graphic novels like Jaime Hernandez's Love and Rockets series or a lesbo-vampire post-modern western and occasionally something relatively mainstream like Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore. At the new Shenzhen Book City it's kinda, sorta of the same thing, except none of the touted books were available, none of the employees were named Sean, Ian or Bridget and no editions cost "287 pounds."

Next stop: the new Shenzhen Library. Visually it's quite impressive. Kind of Star Ship Enterprise, all blossoming glass and aluminum or steel frame, sloping entrance ways which you approach over newly laid, dipping and already caving-in concrete sidewalks (some with gaping un-barricaded three foot drops into the nether-world of the Shenzhen sewer system). But content-wise, I've been in worse American libraries. The Fort Leonard Wood army library in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri during my basic training comes to mind as does the Boulder County Jail...that just for research purposes, mind you.

It was jammed, testimony both to the thirst of literate Shenzhenites for reading material and free Internet access, though on the 2nd floor (English literature) and 5th (English periodicals) there was room to move and browse. The English lit section was spotty to say the least. As if 4 years worth of expats had suddenly fled, leaving behind their odd selections, ranging from mucho tatttered John Grisham, Dean Koontz and Judith Krantz to Duke: The Life and Times of John Wayne and Annie Proulx's That Old Ace in the Hole. Leading off the stacks, though, were "Marxism, Leninism, The Thoughts of Chairman Mao, The Theories of Deng Xiaopeng."

"Remember, you are in China," C, reminded me before we headed to the periodicals. There, I found a slew of trade manuals and mags, electrical, software, chemical, engineering and otherwise, but was gratified to see one patron browsing through a current copy of Hong Kong's South China Morning Post (a rag, but not one deemed safe enough for mainstream mainland circulation) and, though no Rolling Stone or Esquire, fresh editions of Harpers and Atlantic. I settled to read the Harpers Index as C browsed some more.

"Find anything?" I asked a few minutes later. "There's no American Vogue!" she snapped churlishly.

"Remember, you are in China," I replied.
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