Along with a few other independent booksellers and librarians, Karl Pohrt—owner of the amazing Shaman Drum Bookshop in China for the Beijing Book Fair, where he’ll be giving this speech on independent bookselling in America.
Additionally, he’s writing a daily blog about the trip, which we’ll be running here.
January 7, 2008
“In the Red Army there are also quite a few people whose individualism finds expression in pleasure-seeking. They always hope that their unit will march into big cities.”—Mao Zedong
For the last forty-five minutes I’ve been sitting trance-like watching MTV China. Coltish dancers move through their routines in compelling visual landscapes on the flat screen television set in front of me. I don’t speak Mandarin, but it’s easy to understand what this is about—romance, sexuality, a perky attitude. I’m in a room on the thirteenth floor of the China Travel Service Hotel on the No. 2 Beisanhuan East Road, Chaoyang District, in northeast Beijing. At night the neighborhood looks like an industrial park.
Roughly 23 hours ago I boarded a plane in the Motor City and was slingshotted across the world, emerging from the flight somewhat dazed into the wintry temperatures and particle laden night air of Beijing.
The flights were uneventful, and I passed the time reading, watching movies and fitfully dozing. I brought along The Authentic Confucius, by Annping Chin, and Wolf Totem, a fine novel by Jiang Rong that will be published in the U.S. this March, but I entered a kind of hallucinatory space during the last jump (Tokyo to Beijing) and I don’t think I retained much of what I read.
The invitation for this trip arrived just as I was ramping up for holiday sales in my store, and I didn’t have time to prepare much. I reread Red Pine’s felicitous translation of the Tao Te Ching and an anthology of the writings of Mao Zedong. Both texts offer advice, but I’m at that stage of the life cycle where I lean more toward Lao Tzu than The Great Helmsman. It is probably true, however, that neither is of much relevance in explaining contemporary China. In retrospect, I would probably have been better off reading Donald Trump’s most recent book.
I was met at the Beijing International Airport an hour ago by Kong Deyun, a very polite young woman who efficiently whisked me here. In the taxi Deyun asked if I sold Harry Potter books, and she seemed slightly surprised when I told her we filed them in our children’s section. I did not have time to slip on one of the twenty disposable surgical masks I’d purchased last week after reading a frightening description in the New York Times of pollution in Beijing. The article portrayed Beijing as a kind of 21st century version of 19th century London. In my (admittedly unscientific) opinion, the pollution crisis seems overstated, but then I grew up in Flint, an industrial city, and I smoked too many cigarettes when I was young.
I’m a member of a delegation of five American booksellers invited by Sichuan Xinhua Winshare Chainstore Co., Ltd, and China Publishing Today to attend the Beijing Book Fair. My companions are Allison Hill from Vromans (Pasadena), Rick Simonson from Elliott Bay (Seattle), Sarah McNally from McNally Robinson Booksellers (New York), and Paul Yamasaki from City Lights (San Francisco). I’m sure none of us would claim sage status, but collectively we’ve had well over one hundred years of experience in the book business. Sarah and Allison don’t look anywhere near that old, but after the long flight I’m feeling like a bohemian bookseller version of the stoic sheriff Tommy Lee Jones plays in No Country for Old Men. Paul and Rick look none the worse for wear, but they both arrived yesterday and seem to have already successfully acclimated themselves to the thirteen hour time difference.
We are joined by Bronx librarian Barbara Genco, Ruediger Wischenbart (a German consultant with BookExpo America) and a small group of British publishers and booksellers.
The man who finessed this visit, Lance Fensterman, Reed International Vice President for BookExpo America, thought he would join us, but other responsibilities came up at the last minute. Lance is a man of great good humor and I’d memorized some jokes to tell him, although I’m too addled from the long plane ride to deliver the correct punch lines. I’m sorry he can’t be here.
The Beijing Book Fair is described by China Publishing Today as “the most important event in the Chinese book industry” and around 6,000 people are expected to attend. We’ll visit Chinese publishing houses and bookstores this week, and we’re scheduled to give presentations during a forum on Friday. Despite the wintry climate (Beijing is on roughly the same latitude as Pyonyang, North Korea and Detroit) I am absolutely delighted to be here, especially by the opportunity to meet Chinese booksellers.
“Rambling Jack—what’s that?”
“A novel. Novella, I guess.”
“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
“Sorta. It’s a duel language book, so really, only about… 50 pages total.”
“And this—what. . .
Many authors are compared to Roberto Bolaño. However, very few authors have the privilege of having a Roberto Bolaño quote on the cover of their work; and at that, one which states, “Good readers will find something that can be. . .
In Josep Maria de Sagarra’s Private Life, a man harangues his friend about literature while walking through Barcelona at night:
When a novel states a fact that ties into another fact and another and another, as the chain goes on. . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .