August 22, 2002

China, the Book

Traveling with Paul

Traveling with the right book is as important as traveling with the right people. A book is an intimate traveling companion. I wanted a good China book for my trip to that most fascinating, exotic culture.

I looked around in spare moments during the hectic weeks leading up to my departure, but somehow came up with nothing. I like the influence of the random element in making a decision like choosing the right book for a trip, so I was waiting for the right thing to come my way.

I was hoping to find something among my books at home. Some books I had had about China over the years had slipped away. A few came to mind that I throught I could find. The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck I had wanted to read since I was 20 or so. I loved to pick up the The Tao Te Ching every now and then. I have an old copy of Richard Wilhelm's translation of I Ching (Book of Changes), but wouldn't want to take it out of the house, let alone out of the country. I had had a couple of pretty good guidebooks that I gave away thinking I'd probably never make it back to China. I once read a book called The Importance of Living by Lin Yutang. There were some good history titles around when my wife and I had our bookstore, like Stillwell and the American Experience in China, by Barbara Tuchman. Anything about China suddenly gained in interest as my trip approached. But in my haste, I was only able to come up with one China book, a travel narrative by Paul Theroux called Riding the Iron Rooster, By Train Through China.

I've fallen out of going to bookstores in recent years. I still love good independent bookstores, but mostly now I like used bookstores. Because I was in the book business in the '80s and '90s I saw the corporatization of the book business from the inside and it turned me off of the experience of buying new retail books.

I saw big corporations buy up all the independent publishers, consolidate the industry under a handful of massive corporations, eliminate competition, and then proceed to jack the price of books up so high only the rich could really afford to buy them. The days of democratic access to inexpensive books became a thing of the past. That's a long story, but I lost the thrill of going out to a bookstore and springing for a new book. I go to my local library, which is part of a consortium of about 70 libraries. You can search its Web site for any title and have a good chance of finding it. So the big corporations succeeded in manipulating the market so they can gouge you and make a lot bigger margins on every book, but in so doing they have increased the demand for libraries and used bookstores. They were so bad they forced people to find alternatives.

Somehow the only thing I came up with for the trip was Riding the Iron Rooster, and it looked pretty intriguing. It was even red, my favorite color.

Anyway, to make an already long story as short as I still can, I soon found out that Paul Theroux was not someone I wanted to travel with. In fact I found myself aroused to some surprising levels of hostility in just reading the first few chapters. Good thing it was a book and not a person. I might have thrown him out of the airplane over the Bering Sea.

In summary, he was just a grouch, a mean-spirited, malevolent toad. Maybe he was sick. I had read no more than a paragraph or two of his work here or there before and I couldn't believe that all of it could have been like that. Surely the work that inspired a USA Today reviewer to say "[Theroux's] books have enriched the travel literature of this century..." was not like that.

He started his trip in a group tour, which he describes in the most sordid terms, as if it was the most ghastly, torturous experience he ever endured. He couldn't believe people were so creepy as the losers who take tours with groups. He found that the people wanted to talk to him, ask him about his life and what he did. This he found enormously distasteful.

"I hate being observed. One of the pleasures of travel is being anonymous," he says. He's terribly annoyed that people want to ask him his name and who he is. Rather than just saying something and getting it over, he develops the dynamic tension of the plot by tactics of avoidance of revealing anything to the people he encounters. Then he says very insulting, malicious things about them behind their backs, as it were, in public, in the pages of his book. And he uses their names to create the most firepower possible to personally injure these people who dared to be plain and undistinguished and to take the liberty of asking him about his vocation.

Theroux is obviously a gifted writer and he says clever things and creates moments of interest even when he is being unreservedly malignant. But being a gifted writer is no compensation for being a bad traveling companion. Every thought comes in a putrid dark cloud. Like the biographical smears by William Goldman, the writing is polluted with the malicious poison of a person who seems to loathe practically everyone and everything. A malcontent, like Dostoevsky's main character in Notes from Undergound. He sees only the dark, festering underside of everything.

The people on the tour all seemed like "illiterates," he said. This he liked because they wouldn't blow his secret identity. They were too stupid to even know who he is.

China, when he had been there, had looked "bleak and exhausted." The suburbs of Paris are "simple and awful." Berlin is "a monstrosity and not much fun." Germany was "disfigured" and "blighted with industrial civilization." Belgium "looked hideous."

I'm sorry, but I like traveling with people who like to have a little fun, who maybe see something good occasionally about the new things they are encountering, maybe even experience a little joy. When I travel I fall in love with the people and the places themselves. I can't get enough. To me the model for traveling had been the boundless enthusiasm of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

We were suddenly driving along the blue waters of the Gulf, and at the same time a momentous mad thing began on the radio; it was the Chicken Jazz 'n Gumbo disk jockey show from New Orleans, all mad jazz records, colored records, with the disk jockey saying, "Don't worry 'bout nothing!" We saw New Orleans ahead of us with joy. Dean rubbed his hands over the wheel "Now we're going to get our kicks!" At dusk we were coming into the humming streets of New Orleans. "Oh smell the people!" yelled Dean with his face out the window sniffing. "Ah! God! Life!"

Or Henry Miller. Even when he was being malevolent, there was tremendous joy and love implicit in his attitude toward life. Even in Louis Ferdinand Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, which is one of the most powerfully depressing books I've ever read, there was a bright sense of humor that could give you a good gut laugh for relief. This Theroux was unvaryingly foul and negative about everything.

What finally capped it for me was when he started mouthing off about politics, demonstrating a typically American attitude, with arrogance and ignorance battling each other to be the dominant characteristic. He spoke with blasé callousness about the extortion, torture and murder his government is subjecting people to in the third world to for the benefit of the corporations who want their oil, fruit, cheap labor, coffee, sugar, lumber, meat -- you name it, whatever they've got.

While he's in Germany (we're only up to page 13) a newspaper comes out with a headline about the US bombing of Lybia. A German acquaintance speaks of the bombing "with slight bitterness." Here Theroux jumps into the familiar caveman-style us-versus-you logic, using some sort of weird historical logic to justify the bombings by saying, implicitly, "you Germans are just as bad as us."

"I decided not to remind him of Germany's uniquely horrible history," says Theroux. He tells the German, "I think we bombed Libya because we have been dying to bomb someone in the Middle East ever since the hostage crisis. Iran humiliated us more than any other country has done in recent years. We still haven't gotten over it. I don't think the average American makes much distinction between Iranians and Libyans. They're seen as dangerous and worthless fanatics, so why should we waste our time being subtle with them."

Someone might defend him by saying, "He's not saying that's how he feels, he's saying that's how 'the average American' feels." But that's a cop-out. That crap of "Look what you did in World War II" as a way of justifying killing now is just stupid, primitive crap, childish games that shouldn't be played by grown men. That "your country versus my country" stuff shouldn't be taken seriously by anyone who's been around and seen some things.

At that point I knew I didn't want to travel with Paul anymore. I closed him back up in the book, packed it deep in my suitcase and didn't look at it till I got home. I had made it to page 15.

I went into a "Foreign Language Bookstore" in Beijing and found a couple of aisles of English Language books and English-Chinese books, and the prices were stunning. I bought a beautiful trade paperback version of Tao Te Ching in both Chinese and English for the equivalent of an American dollar. In the US it would cost $11. Even the classics with no copyright, which should be dirt cheap to produce, are expensive now because there's no competition, little choice in the marketplace and prices have been manipulated upward as a result. Almost all the great classic paperback imprints that used to compete with each other: Penguin Classics, Signet Classics, Bantam Classics and several others, are now own by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann, and those guys don't seem too inspired by the humanitarian value of making classics that are cheap to produce and cheap to buy.

I saw the consolidation when I was an independent bookstore owner. Black Lizard press, for example, produced great reprints of pulp mysteries of the '40s and '50s, by writers like Jim Thompson. The books hit a vogue, started selling to an affluent market, so Random House bought Black Lizard. They took the $3.95 editions off the shelf and for several months the book was unavailable. Then it came back, but this time as an $11 trade paperback. They repackaged them to appeal to a wealthier clientele with pretentious covers that were meant to evoke Film Noir. But the actual cost of the new books to produce could not have been more than a few cents higher.

The difference in cost of producing the slightly larger paperback, with a black and white cover instead of a color one was maybe 50 cents at most and they almost tripled the price of the $4 paperback. The book didn't fit in your pocket anymore either. That was when I started learning about how big corporations turn the free market into a market controlled by them.

Remember, the mass market paperbacks cost the publishers so little to produce that they don't even take them as returns. They just have the retailers "strip" the covers, send them back as evidence that they threw the book away, and get credit as if they returned the book. It's cheaper for them to produce a new copy on an assembly line than to hire a person to process a return. Of course cheap paper from dwindling environmental resources is a big part of that equasion.

I don't know very much about China's government, which we hear so much bad propaganda about in the US They are supposedly "communist," which seems to mean something like "devil." And they have "no value for human life," we are told. They don't grant their people "human rights," we are told by our great, humanitarian leaders. Who knows? If China was ever something that could be called communist, it sure looks awfully capitalist now. The free market is humming. The energy is teeming. The legendary industriousness of the Chinese people is now plugged into the socket of the world market. So look out world.

A skyscraper taller than the Kuala Lumpur City Centre in Singapore, which is currently the tallest building in the world, is planned for Chongqing, China, which is now the largest municipality in the world, I am told, with 36 million people. I doubt that the Chinese are blowing their newfound prosperity on building a war machine like the US. That gives China an advantage over the US in every way except in a military confrontation. And military confrontation between China and the US is not a viable possibility. If that happens, it may soon be all over for planet earth.

If the US wakes up and starts investing a little of its wealth in what Buckminster Fuller called "livingry" instead of "killingry," the US may avoid being left in the dust economically and culturally in the next few years by China and Asia. Anyway, Paul Theroux's attitudes did not sit well with me. He was not to be my traveling companion. -- By David Cogswell

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