Back in the days of yore when I lived in Turkey, books were a rare commodity. In my first two years, when I lived out in the wilds of Kayseri, I lived off the half dozen books I had brought with me from Canada, chosen for their thickness, small type and slow reading.
Family sent me books for Christmas, that arrived in time for Easter if they arrived at all. Sometimes, I took a six hour bus ride (starting at 2am) to Ankara to buy books in the university district (mostly classics) or to Istanbul (11-12 hours, painful) to scope out the over priced expat book shops.
I spent my fairly meagre salary (shamefully small now in retrospect) on thick, slow reading books from Homer or Pandora in Beyoglu or the Greenhouse in Kadikoy. Books were rare and treasured and not to be taken lightly. English books did not come cheaply.
By the time I left Turkey, I had amassed a beautiful collection, six years worth of treasured books, that filled an awesome book shelf cupboard that I bought for 100 lira from the Cukurcuma (dangly first C) antique street. I used to stop and just look at it in awe and delight, knowing that all these books were mine. Their spines delighted me, their mere presence calmed me and centered me. I loved them and they loved me.
When I left, I gave away 75% of them. I didn’t even try to sell them. Some I gave away to my old workplace; some were left in my flat for the next tenant. I estimate their value at around 1000 lira, or around half of a month’s salary or more than a month’s rent. Books did not come cheap. I ached when I left them behind but I had nowhere to ship them to, realistically, and the price would not have been worth it. In Turkey, books were like gold to me.
In Shanghai, things are slightly different.
You know how my students cheat? All the time? Whole essays and term papers and projects stolen blatantly from the internet, easily traced, never apologized for. Copying is okay. Intellectual property as I had been raised to understand it barely exists. Sure, in Istanbul I used to go to the fake DVD market in Besiktas by the ferry terminal and buy the overpriced Sex and the City series at 5ytl per disc for appallingly burned copies. Sure I used to buy hilariously archaic VCDs from the one armed man with the suit case on Bagdat caddesi. Sure I haven’t paid for legitimate music or film since 2006. I get that. But Shanghai wins.
I can buy fake books here.
Yes, I can buy DVDs until my ears bleed (cheap!) and 5 cd compilation packs for the price of a pack of gum. That pales in comparison to the books. A few months ago, I wrote about a now defunct fake bookshop in our neighbourhood that sold books by weight. The paper was worth more than the content. They are now a cheap and tawdry carpet shop. My Turkish allusion is circular now.
Tonight we walked up to Huaihai lu, then up to Donghu Lu, where that Sichuan place is, that is lovely and has numbing peppercorns and Belgian beer and which charges you an irrational 2 kuai per person if you deign to actually use the napkins you’ve been given. Along Donghu lu are a dozen or so book and CD and DVD vendors, all operating out of tidy, easily hidden away wooden suitcases perched on folding stands. Now that I’ve studied Chinese, prices have gone down considerably.
Tonight, I found four books at one suitcase stand, which I bargained down to 50 rmb quite readily. 68 rmb is about $10US for comparison. I stuffed the shrink wrapped fake books into my shoulder bag and we set off to eat noodles and numbing bok choy and whatnot. Just outside the restaurant was another wooden suit case shop, where I stopped for a moment to check out the inventory.
I still operate mentally with a Depression mentality, hoarding paperclips and bits of twine in case I might someday need them. This compulsion extends to books, You can never have too many. You never know when you might need one and have no access to one. I stopped and I perused and I found three novels that intrigued me. He declared they cost 60 and I declared they cost 40 and we never came to an agreement so I set them down and went to eat dinner.
When we emerged an hour later and set off down the block, bellies full of dumplings and Duvel, the last bookseller dashed after us, the books I had laid down before were in his hands, now miraculously priced at 40 rmb, just as I had suggested an hour or so earlier.
I walked home with 7 new shrink wrapped, totally bootlegged books in my purse. I had spent 90 kuai. Less than the cost of one little paperback novel in Istanbul in 2005.
I feel slightly dirty.