◎ Xia Mianzun
For twenty years past, books have eaten into at least 10-20 percent of my pocket. Now the only things of some value under my roof, if any, are my books.
Since I have never entertained ambition for making a profound study of any subject, the books I have acquired cover almost everything — religion, art, literature, sociology, philosophy, history, biology, etc. Most of them are Chinese translations of literary works by famous foreign writers and anthologies of Chinese poetry and prose through the ages. The rest, often called an outline or introduction, are merely on rudiments of various subjects.
I never care to borrow books from other people or a library. It seems that books bought can better satisfy my bibliomania than books borrowed. You may also attribute this to some sort of desire for personal possessions. Whenever I have some new acquisitions, it always gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to stamp my ex-libris on them one by one.
As soon as a new book comes to hand, I always read the preface first and then the table of contents. If it happens to be a thin one, I often finish reading it at one sitting. Otherwise, I often browse through one or two chapters or sections before putting it onto my bookshelf. I seldom read a thick book from cover to cover unless it is a novel. By dint of the first impression it made on me at the time of buying, I have a rough idea of what a book is about and what useful materials in it are available to me. But I have little idea which book is to be read or looked over again at what time. It is completely subject to the whims of the moment. This often prompts me to liken myself and the books on my shelves respectively to an ancient emperor and his concubines housed separately in a row of adjoining rooms.
Much as I love books, I take little care of them. In doing my reading, I often mark out what I regard as important in a book. If it is a thread-bound Chinese book, I use a writing brush to draw small circles as markings. Otherwise, I use a red pencil to draw heavy underlines. Consequently, the books I have read are rarely clean.
It is said that those who have a great liking for candies will sicken to see them when later they happen to work in a candy store. Likewise, ever since I began to work in a bookstore, my obsession with books has been very much on the decline. Nevertheless, I still cannot help slipping back into the same old rut, eager to buy this and that book. This is probably because candies are to be eaten with the mouth and not worth keeping as knickknacks while books can be bought without being read and just left on a shelf.