Amid the frenzy there is little room for the slow pleasures of the bookby Yuan Ren / February 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
It’s getting harder to sit down and read a book in Beijing. Even with the enduring smog outside being the perfect excuse for staying in, shutting the door and doing exactly that, a mere five minutes into chapter one and I’m already fretting over whether the delivery man is trying to reach me by phone.
Everything comes fast at you in China, and the sensory overload leaves no room for continuity. E-shop and your order arrives next morning. WeChat—a sort of combined Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp—engulfs the lives around me. Many people my age, including friends with busy careers, are living more of their lives online than offline.
I used to treasure downtime on the London tube to get stuck into a good book. On the Beijing subway, getting a seat is near impossible, and someone nearby is always playing a WeChat video with no headphones on. Kinda kills the mood, not that anyone is trying to read a book anyway. “When was the last time you saw someone with a book in their hand on public transport?” a writer friend of mine asked. I genuinely couldn’t remember.
Last year, after Emma Watson hid books on the London Underground to encourage commuters to read, a Chinese media company tried the same. In true Chinese style, it attempted something bigger and better, launching in several cities at once and enlisting celebrities to do the hiding. Over 10,000 books were left in stations, trains and taxis. But soon pictures of books piled next to a platform rubbish bin made the rounds on social media. Cue derision, as users asked: “Do Chinese people actually read books at all?”
“With the online information overflow… reading habits have been highly fragmented,” Gao Lizhi, deputy editor of Beijing Publishing Group told me.
It’s a different picture, however, at the three-tier, 24-hour Sanlian bookshop in Beijing, long known as the “spiritual home of China’s intellectuals.” Even at midnight, all the reading tables are often taken. Sanlian’s popularity is down to a strong focus on the social sciences and arts, as well as the editor’s selectivity. New-age “literary youths” come to read here too, lounging with a coffee in the all-night cafe upstairs.
“Attitudes to reading have manifested in two extremes,” says Cui Defang, editor of Sanlian Publishing. “There is the minority who love to read or read for…