Hunting down books in Beijing

By Lisa Linssen Source:Global Times Published: 2018/11/13 18:18:40

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

I am what they call a bookworm. I like to read, a lot. The advice I get the most whenever I move abroad or go on vacation is to get an e-reader, but I never take their suggestion because I like real books too much. I like how they feel in my hands, I like how you can see the progress you are making while reading it, I like the smell of paper pulp and ink. But the downside to my love for physical books is I either always must carry loads of them with me or I need to find new books I want to read wherever I go.

Despite Beijing being a large metropolis, it is not as easy to find books in English. Most local bookstores only have classic English literature like Charlotte Brontë and Mark Twain. So far, I have forced myself to read Marquez or Verne while living in Beijing, simply because that's all I could find. I've also read some historical books about India and Saudi Arabia, which back home I would probably never have stumbled across.  

With the exception of Harry Potter and Twilight, contemporary foreign-language books are hard to find in Beijing bookstores.

If my favorite foreign authors release a new book, walking into a bookstore and buying it like I would back home is simply not an option here. Turning to online shopping like Taobao, the selection is just as limited. Finding German books is nearly impossible, and to my disadvantage I am a big fan of German literature and like to keep up with my favorite authors.

Fortunately, part of the fun in reading is having to hunt down the books I want to buy. Now that I am in Beijing, this challenge has gotten harder but also in a way more rewarding. Back in Germany, I would carry a list of books I wanted to read. Every Saturday, you would find me at a flea market trying to find them. I would also constantly scour my friends' bookshelves and either try to buy it or borrow it from them.

There are not that many flea markets in China, although sometimes you can find some old people selling antiques and other old junk, including used books, on blankets laid out on the sidewalks. I also try my luck in several WeChat buy-and-sell groups run by expats. And since the users of those groups tend to be very international, the selection is quite eclectic and cosmopolitan.

I also discovered that some German businesses in Beijing have their own company bookshelves, where I can satisfy my love for German literature. And local youth hostels also tend to have book-exchange shelves where you find an interesting and unusual selection of novels left behind by passing backpackers. I like to imagine about how far across the world these books have already traveled and what stories they could tell about the places they have been and the readers who have held them in their hands.

A fun thing foreigners in China should start doing is writing their names, country of origin and date read inside the cover. That way, as the book gets passed around from expat to expat, hostel to hostel, then country to country, it will be like a running log of global readers.

This article was published on the Global Times Metropolitan section Two Cents page, a space for reader submissions, including opinion, humor and satire. The ideas expressed are those of the author alone, and do not represent the position of the Global Times.


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