Pathlight: Diao Dou – Me and Books

Illustration by Wang Yan

A connoisseur of fine wines once said: “A cup contains a cosmos; the sun and moon are glimpsed in wine.” Nicely put. I’m a connoisseur not of wines but of words, and I may as well produce my own slavish rendition: A book contains a cosmos; the sun and moon are glimpsed in reading. Not quite so nicely put, but you get the point.

When the protagonist of my novel Testimony leaves home, his understanding wife writes him the following advice: “No matter what you do now, I hope you’ll never give up on books. The good thing about a book is that it’s another person, a community, a world, and at the same time it’s nothing at all.” I was also addressing myself.

I normally spend more of my time on reading than on any other activity. For most of the year my days are fairly routine – monotonous, even. Half my day is wasted away in bed or at the dinner table, and the remainder is devoted to reading and writing. I have quite severe spondylosis in my neck, which prevents me from spending too long hunched over a computer – so it’s reading that gets the lion’s share of my time. When my friends call and ask me what I’m doing, my answer is always the same: reading. It makes them suspicious – they think I’m faking it. No one can accuse Diao Dou of failing to produce much work, but where does he find the time for writing if he’s spending all day reading? It’s as though I’m concealing my hard work beneath a pretence of idle reading. But I’m really not showing off. My life mainly comprises reading and writing, and while I do indeed sweat blood over the latter, it never ceases to bring me pleasure. Let’s do the maths: seven or eight hundred words a day equates to a pretty good annual yield – and seven or eight hundred words, even allowing for thinking and revising, doesn’t really require that much time. I know that my friends are just making small talk when they ask me what I’m doing, and that I could easily just reply in the same spirit – but I always making a point of replying seriously: I am reading. I can see how it could be interpreted as pretension, as feigned sophistication (assuming that there’s anything sophisticated about reading) or wilful whimsicality. But it isn’t. There are two reasons why I tell people the truth: Firstly, my subconscious inclination towards accurate description (of an entirely unshameful fact); and secondly, because I’m a bit like a missionary who takes every opportunity to pipe up about the gospel. My reasoning goes like this: if there’s even the faintest chance that the person at the end of the line might go and pick up a book after they’ve hung up, then I’ll have had a positive influence. Exerting this influence, as far as I’m concerned, is my good deed for the day.

Read the whole essay in Pathlight Winter 2015: Influence.