Shelving Books

Reid Mitchell
Sep 11th, 2014

This summer I, along with my clothes, guitar, and books, moved from Beijing to Guangzhou.  Actually, my “stuff”, as George Carlin called it, went straight to Guangzhou, if it made it to Guangzhou at all.  (A lot didn’t.)  I had to route myself through Hong Kong, where I twiddled my thumbs for two months, waiting for overdue pieces of paper to arrive so I could apply for a work visa.


But all of us who are going to arrive are here now and I have a mess of books to shelve, with too few shelves to hold them.  My living room is labyrinth, covered with broken bits of white Styrofoam, formed by opened boxes, stacks of books and unfamiliar furniture.  A new acquaintance has stopped by to help.  Or so she says.  She’s perched on the arm of the sofa.  I am wandering back and forth, putting some books in the larger bookcase in the bedroom and others on the shelves of the television console, but leaving most of them to be sorted out later.


‘Why not just put them up at random?’ she asks.


‘I want to be able to find any book quickly.’


‘Can’t you keep track of a few hundred books?’


Actually, as a teenager I could do just that.  My system for my books and LPs – Google it if you don’t know – was to organize them by the date I bought them.  I always remembered when I’d got a new book or LP.  I had to travel across town by bus for two hours to Smith’s Record Store to get Blonde on Blonde and I was drenched from a summer rainstorm by the time I bought it.  Of course I knew where it was on my record shelf.


‘I want my books by Chinese writers in the living room.’


This is of course the room where anybody who visits me will sit and my first visitor gets the point too quickly for my taste.  She says, ‘You want to impress people that while you can’t read Chinese at all you read Chinese books in translation?’


I didn’t bother confirming this cruel but accurate shot.  I merely lifted the last double handful of books out and put them on the coffee table.  The coffee table has an imitation glass top with an etching that I think is supposed to look like a lily pond.


She says, ‘I’ll help,’ and starts rummaging through the books.  The first titles she announces are no-brainers.  Minford and Lau’s anthology of classical Chinese literature, The Book of Songs, novels by Mo Yan, a whole slew of books from a series of Shanghai writers.  All placed in a pile for the living room.  It looks as if the living room will not hold all my Chinese books in translation so we start to separate poetry from fiction.  Chinese poetry will have pride of place.


Then she picks up another book of poetry.  She says, ‘Tina Chang?’


‘Goes with American poetry.’


‘She looks Chinese to me.’


‘As American as I am.  Poet Laureate of Brooklyn.  Born in Oklahoma.’


‘Born in Japan?’


‘Oklahoma is a state in the USA.’


I take the book into the bedroom.  But this easy decision sets my helper on a hunt.  She starts going through the piles of books, looking for Chinese names, glancing at biographies.


Shelving books has turned into an argument about the basis of national identity.  A few years ago, I taught at a university founded to attract “Overseas Chinese” to study in China.  Most of the Overseas Chinese I taught didn’t cross a sea to get there; they came from Macao and Hong Kong.  Most of them segregated themselves from the mainland students.  They dressed more expensively, had more money and were assigned to better dormitories, ones with air conditioning.


‘OK,’ my guest says.  ‘Mooncake Vixens by Marilyn Chen.’


‘She’s American.  Grew up in the USA.  Writes in English.’


 ‘She was born in China.’


‘Hong Kong.’


‘Hong Kong is an integral...’


‘Tell it to the Marines.  She defines herself as Chinese-American.’ 


Defiantly, I set Mooncake Vixens aside. 


But my adversary has already moved on.  I can tell she is pleased with her new find.


‘Xu Xi.’


A more difficult decision.  Xu Xi’s is not an immigrant story.  She probably has an American passport – how rude it would be for me to ask! – she was educated in America, she lives in America sometimes.  Writes in English.  But born in, raised in, and currently living in Hong Kong. 


‘That book goes with the other Hong Kong books.’


‘You mean the other Chinese books.’


‘OK.’  That meant with the books of another writer, Xi Xi, translated from the Chinese, and a two-volume anthology.  Maybe with the two print issues I own of the Asia Literary Review.  You know, issues with poems I wrote.


‘Geiling Yan?  She wrote that movie a few years ago, right?  Jīnlíng Shísān Chāi?  Didn’t you see it?’


I had seen it, with a Chinese woman who never cries but who was crying, silently, when the film was over.  I think she cried the whole taxi-ride back to campus.


Finally, a tough one.  First, because while I have read at least three of Geiling Yan’s books, I couldn’t remember any details of her life except she lives in America and is friends with an American television star and director – who also emigrated to America after she became a success in China.


While my adversary holds one Geiling Yan book tight, I read her biography in a second.  Geiling Yan came to America after she was fully grown.  After a significant career as a dancer, a journalist, a novelist.    She served in the People’s Liberation Army, for god-sakes.  I hesitate, wanting to add to my pile of Chinese books, wanting to stop being so goddam American.


But I come to my senses.




This creates a protest. ‘It says, “Translated from the Chinese.”  She writes in Chinese.  She’s a Chinese writer.’


‘Put her in with the American writers.’  I consider a moment longer.  ‘Put her right next to Isaac Bashevis Singer.’


‘Who’s he?’


‘Born in Poland. Moved to America when he was in his thirties.  Continued to write in Yiddish.  Great American writer.’


‘How can you say that?’


‘For one thing, he’s published in the Library of America.’


‘Oh.’  That makes it official.  She hands me the book, and then covers her mouth with her hand.  ‘And I thought he invented the sewing machine.’


Reid Mitchell
Last blog date: Jan 5th, 2015


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