Books, Books, Books! (1)

I have been accused, perhaps with some justice, of having an obsession about buying books. In my defense, I am a historian, and historians need books in a way that few other professions can understand. Books are the where we find most of our data and where we engage in the ongoing discourses that actually constitute history as a scholarly discipline. Reading the right books, knowing the right reference works, and having all of these to hand when you need them (usually to write your own books, papers, and articles) are all essential aspects of being a historian. When you specialize in an obscure branch of history–oh, say, Chinese medical history–for which even a well-stocked university library may be of little use, you are forced to become a library unto yourself.

IMG_0190One of the things I love about China is the book culture. I’ve traveled enough to discover that different countries relate to books in different ways. In some countries books don’t have mass appeal. It isn’t so much that literacy rates are very low as it is that the culture of reading for the love of reading isn’t widespread. China, however, is the other kind of country: bibliophilic. The making, buying, selling, and reading of books has a longer history in China than anywhere else in the world, and to this day the Chinese are avid readers. You see it in the proliferation of bookstores all over Chinese cities. Everything from small bookstores serving a local neighborhood to specialty bookstores stocking obscure titles to massive four and five floor mega-bookstores that have everything from the latest graphic novels to the classics of Chinese scholarship. These bookstores aren’t dusty tombs haunted by pale, bespectacled outcasts, either. They’re downright popular and crowded.

IMG_0324Yesterday I was introduced to a new aspect of Chinese bibliophilia: online book sales. Of course this has been going on for quite a while, and I’ve even used online websites to buy out of print books in the past (from the wonderful website,, but yesterday was my first time ordering new books online, in this case from A friend suggested this book to me–it’s a rather specialized study of foreign influences on Chinese medical culture in the medieval period–so I went online to look for it. I found it easily and decided to try ordering it. I placed my order at 10:45 AM, and by 8:00 PM I had the book in hand–for a meager 5 RMB (about US$0.85) shipping, I think I’m going to like this …

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