Father’s Bookshelves.

From Words Without Borders, a lovely reminiscence by Can Xue (the pseudonym of Deng Xiaohua: “She was born in 1953 in Changsha City, Hunan Province; her parents were sent to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, and she only graduated from elementary school”) that captures what it’s like to be enthralled by the important adult books you’re not yet ready to read:

I grew up with books as my companions. Ever since I was very young, I regarded some books as “serious works.” One couldn’t understand them immediately. I could access them only after I “grew up.” Father’s bookshelves held “serious works” on Western philosophy including books by Marx and Lenin. The most conspicuous were the blue-covered volumes of Capital and several sets of the history of Chinese classical literature. Father read from these books every day for years. He read most of them over and over again.

These books emitted a special smell that drew me into reverie. Whenever I was alone at home, I loved to place these books on the table one by one and pore over them carefully. I would smell them up close and touch them repeatedly. The bindings of all of these books were unadorned and exquisite, and the pages were filled with Father’s notes. At moments like this, the emotions in my young heart soared beyond admiration and rapture. At the time, I also began reading books, most of them light literature. I couldn’t classify them together with Father’s books. I hungered for books that could keep me enthralled temporarily. After I read them, I was finished with them. I had no desire to keep them. And I couldn’t have kept them, even if I’d wanted to, for most of the books were borrowed. In those days, who could afford to buy books?

Father’s books stood quietly on the bookshelves—always silently luring me toward them. Subconsciously, I sensed a very profound world in those books. It would cost a person a lifetime to enter that world in depth. Father read those books at night, every night, for years. His contemplative expression behind his spectacles was certainly not a pose. What reading stirred up in his mind was much different from what I felt when I read ordinary books. What was that? No one could tell me—not even Father himself. He said only, “In the future, you must read all of my books.” Did he mean that in the future I should do as he had done—sit in front of the same book for years, steeped in meditation? I didn’t understand.

And, Words Without Borders being the wonderful site it is, you can read it in Chinese as well, if you can read Chinese.


  1. I love this post.
    I really enjoy books of philosophy or economy that leave great content in your mind. Marx, Engels, Saramago, Hesse are some of my favourite. Unfortunately I do not have this same taste of my memories; Father enjoys reading a lot, but novels, and history books. I would have loved that he could introduce me in the philosophy books years before, but I had to learn it by myself when I was older, around 30.

    No I know I will be Mother, and give my best books to my kids.
    Thanks for the article, it´s lovely

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