My Father Xue Mo and I （3）
By Chen Yixin
translated by J. C. Cleary etc.
There is nothing my father likes more: he only loves books, he loves books as much as life itself.
When friends visit from afar, when they enter our house they are sure to exclaim: “So many books!” It’s true, wherever you look, it’s all books. In our family we have a custom: to save space, we always make walls of books. In addition to this, the living room, the bedrooms, the hallways, the beds, even the bathroom, are all piled with books. Our family has a two-story house in Wuwei, and every room has books from floor to ceiling. Now it’s been two years since we came to Dongguan, and our place there is also filled with books. As my mother says, “It’s so full of books, it’s a disaster.”
My father loves books, and he truly loves them to his bones. When I had just learned to turn pages, he told me that whenever I read a new book, first I should properly arrange the book jacket; and before reading the book, I must first wash my hands. I must not rip the pages, I must not fold them, and I must not scribble on them. After I finished reading it, I must put it back in its original place. we must revere every good book.
Every time my father goes anywhere, he always looks for the bookstores first. He cannot pass up any of the bookstores he has been able to find out about, no matter whether they are grand-scale book malls or bookstalls deep in the shabby backstreets. Many times I have gone to strange cities with him, and he always readily locates the bookstores. I am very puzzled by this: there are many things he looks at without seeing, so why does he find bookstores so easily as if he knows them well?
When our family goes traveling, he would rather give up the opportunity of seeing the famous sites, and go to bookstores to fossick. At first, I had a lot of veiled criticism. Seeing that I was not happy, he laughed and said: “We will still be able to see the scenic spots later, but if we miss a good book, then we have missed it.” Though we travel abroad every year, as my mother says, our travels are from bookstores here to bookstores there.
My father is very generous, and gives his friends a lot of treasures as he pleases, but he rarely lends out books. When our whole family was still living in a studio apartment, he stuck a slip of paper on the bookshelf that said: “Keep your mouth shut, and these are never lent out”. In earlier years, he was always lending people books, and later many of these people did not return them. There were also more than a few people who borrowed books just to keep up appearances, and in fact did not read books, so my father would not lend books to these poseurs. Later, my father bought a lot of books specially to give to people, and if he felt a certain book had a karmic connection to you, he would give it to you without the least hesitation. It’s interesting that he gives books to people but not lend them.
My father reads a wide range of books: he reads books from all fields. When he reads books, he has his own principles. The three most important of these are:
1) First, read those books which are most worth reading in this present life.
2) The content of the book must be fully absorbed and digested, so it can be put to use; it must not be made into fetters.
3) When you read a book, do not always go looking for the book’s defects and shortcomings; you must discover its strong points, and learn from its strengths. Reading books is not done in order to search for their defects, but to absorb nourishment.
When my father reads books, he reads those books that he would regret not having read in his life. He never reads mechanically, and he has not turned into a bookworm. As for the third principle, later he used this in his interchanges with people. He says that the eyes are used to discover beauty, to discover strong points. You should not deliberately go looking for other people’s shortcomings and defects; if you act like that, then you will only bring yourself and others unhappiness and pain. He says you must be like the great ocean; you should not be concerned with how much mud and sand there is in the flow of some rivers. What you do is do your utmost to take in nourishment, and let yourself grow.
Under this constant influence, I too fell in love with reading books. From the time I was little until I grew up, I never lacked for books to read. Before I went to elementary school, I had read almost all the world’s famous children’s stories. While my companions were immersed in playing games, I was wandering far and wide in the beautiful, wondrous world of children’s stories, completely entranced: I was battling the wolf men in the forests of Northern Europe; or marveling at the cunning of Reynard the Fox; or quietly listening to Münchhausen boasting; sometimes I also wanted to have a Puss in Boots…. I had so many roles – in every children’s tale I was the main character.
Since I’ve brought up books of Fairy Tales, there is one story I must tell.
Ten or more years ago, our whole family had just moved to the city, and we were living in my father’s studio apartment. At that time, wearing leather shoes was a very foreign-style thing, and my mother had never worn leather shoes, and always wore handmade cloth shoes. My father very much wanted to buy a pair of leather shoes for my mother. Finally, one day my father received a payment for his writing, fifty-five yuan in all. So the whole family happily went shopping, to buy some leather shoes for my mother. On the way we were all discussing what color and what texture shoes to buy. When we got to the square, my father stopped: there was a bookstore here that he often went to. Father said: “Let’s take a look and then we’ll go. It’ll be quick.”
The whole family went into the store, and my father went to look at sociology books, mother went to look at books on healthy living, and I ran over to the children’s shelf. Right away one set of books attracted my attention. It was a set of picture books called Famous Children’s Stories of the World, in eight volumes. It contained almost all the classic children’s stories in the world. Most important were the beautiful illustrations inside. I loved it and would not let go of it. Very quickly my father and mother also discovered this set of books. My father said: “This is a set of good books.” He looked at the price, and it was exactly fifty-five yuan. My father and mother smiled at each other. My mother said: “It’s better to wear cloth shoes; if I wear leather shoes, my feet will hurt.”
That day I was delighted as I brought the set of books back, but hidden in my heart I felt I owed my mother. But this feeling of regret was soon diluted by the joy this set of books brought me. I read this set of books countless time – it was my most important treasure, and now it still sits there squarely on my bookshelf. Many years later, If I had a child, I would give the books to him(her), and told him(her) a story about leather shoes and fairy tale books.
This was a minor event, nothing heart-rending, nothing earth-shaking, but I cannot forget it.
Later, we opened a bookstore, and during that period of time I read a great many books. In front of the book shelves I sat, crawled, stretched out, lay down, reading till it got pitch dark, and often I forgot to do my homework. My father did not blame me; instead he called my teacher, saying they should not assign me homework. Many people find this inconceivable, and I laugh – this is the kind of special person he is. Later, when I entered my first year in middle school, I truly could not bear the endless repetitive school work, and my father again called teacher, telling him not to assign me school work. After this he began to arrange my reading according to a plan. While my age-mates were doing the same topics over and over again, I was avidly reading the world’s most beautiful writings. For this I feel very fortunate.
The direct result brought about by my father’s love of books was that I very seldom bought books. This was because I could find all the books I needed on my father’s bookshelves. I thought, I will conscientiously read the books, and as for the happy feeling of strolling in bookstores buying books, I’ll leave that to my father!
(To Be Continued...)