Charlie Reads.

Ah, another book blog…

I’ve started a new blog.

All the usual doubts which, up to now, have stopped me every time I’ve wanted to do this before. What will I write about? Why put myself out there like that? I’ll just do a few posts and forget about it, right? And who on earth would read it?

So why bother? Good question, and there’s no good answer.

It’s not the first question about me and books with no good answer. When I was 17 (cue song) I impulsively changed my university application at the last minute to apply to study Chinese Studies. Everyone was, frankly, baffled. About a year before, I’d developed a little personal obsession with China. I read everything I possibly could about China: art, history, philosophy, travel books and – of course – literature. It was all-consuming and, because this was in the infancy of the internet, almost entirely conducted through bookshops and libraries.

There was no single spark that I can remember. I went to an ukiyo-e exhibition (yes, that’s not Chinese). I picked up a copy of Zhang Yimou’s Hero on imported VCD. I picked up a book on symbolism in Chinese society from my council library. Somehow, with a little bit of teenage angst, plenty of contrariness and a whole lot of pretension, idle teenage hours hanging round London’s bookshops, museums, galleries, cinemas drew me to China. I have no connection with China – no heritage, no family link. No-one in my family had ever travelled there or expressed any interest in the country. The only things that had changed were that I had turned 16, my parents had just separated, and I was free to roam London. I’m sure a therapist would have had a few things to say about my new obsession.

I didn’t even much like books. The summer before I fell in love with Chinese literature I struggled to choose two books to take on holiday. But over the course of that happy year I came to know intimately each central London bookshop’s selection of books about China. I would visit so regularly I could tell if anyone else had bought specific books. A-ha, they finally sold that copy… I stumbled into specialist bookshops like Arthur Probsthain and the Chinese language bookshops around Gerrard Street.

And I bought books, and borrowed them, and did everything I could to read them. Any piece of literature about China or written by someone Chinese that was available in a passable London bookshop at the turn of the millennium I bought, read and read again. All supplemented by seeing any Chinese film released or in my local video shop; going to every Chinese exhibition; planning dream trips to China. The staff at the British Museum’s China galleries must have been sick of the sight of me.

So what next? I went off to university and studied Chinese Studies to Master’s level, with a particular focus on classical and modern Chinese literature. And then… then nothing. I said I was contrary, and I am. I had no idea what I wanted to do and, just how following my teenage nose around London led me to love China, following my young professional nose has led me somewhere totally unrelated to China. But I still carry a flame for Chinese literature.

Hence, this blog. I want to re-engage with my teenage love. I know the chances are that it will fizzle out again, but this is a little way for me to focus on Chinese literature and share my love.

I don’t know where it will take me, and I’m being open about that. What is ‘Chinese’? What even is ‘literature’? Once again, I’ll follow my nose. Modern fiction, yes, either in translation or diaspora fiction in English. Historical fiction too, which I love. Some travel, history, poetry, philosophy… some new translations of classic literature. A few reviews, a few thought posts. Let’s see where it goes.

So who is it for? I suppose anyone who has the same bug that I once picked up – if I can be useful or interesting to anyone who wants to learn more about Chinese literature then I will feel it is a success. There aren’t many one-stop shops for people with a specific interest in a country or a region’s literature – perhaps I can be that too.

I might get less coy about my personal life. I might abandon China entirely again and follow some new obsession like, I don’t know, the history of synchronised swimming. But I want to have a bit of fun doing it.

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