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from the November 2014 issue

“The Fair-haired Princess” and Serious Literature

Father’s bookshelves were lined mostly with Marxist-Leninist books. I remember the titles on some of the spines. I can’t remember some others, because the words were too abstract. I loitered in front of Father’s bookcase every day. One day, out of the blue, Father brought home from the library several books of foreign fairy tales (by then, he had been sent to work under surveillance in the library—this was called “reeducation through labor”). Father borrowed these books for my older sister to read, because she was in primary school and knew many words. One was called “The Fair-haired Princess.” [Rapunzel] Father said the title only once, and I remembered it forever. A picture of a young girl with long golden hair hanging down to her ankles graced the cover. I stared for a long time with wide-open eyes at that picture. How could anyone have such beautiful yellow hair? How wonderful it would be if I could get a strand of that golden hair!

For days, I had only to pick up that little book to feel unusual emotions rising. I often took advantage of times when no one was around to scrutinize my golden-haired princess. I thought her fair hair was spun of real gold. And her face looked so gentle and delicate! Entranced, I pressed the cover to my cheek. If bad guys were to come into my house, I would hide the fair-haired princess in the most secret place where no one could find her (such as the cave in the hill behind us). I’d wait for the bad guys to leave before taking her out again. If she was starving and had nothing to eat, I would give her all the eggs laid by our family’s only black hen. I’d also give her the piece of candy that Father had given me the day before. I wanted to be her best friend.

That book wasn’t returned to the library for a long time. I thought of it as our family’s book. When I argued with the child next door, I would suddenly raise my voice and shout, “Ha! I have the fair-haired princess! Do you? Do you?!” Of course she didn’t, and she was overwhelmed by my superiority.

 

I grew up with books as my companions. Ever since I was very young, I regarded some books as “serious works.” One couldn’t understand them immediately. I could access them only after I “grew up.” Father’s bookshelves held “serious works” on Western philosophy including books by Marx and Lenin. The most conspicuous were the blue-covered volumes of Capital and several sets of the history of Chinese classical literature. Father read from these books every day for years. He read most of them over and over again.

These books emitted a special smell that drew me into reverie. Whenever I was alone at home, I loved to place these books on the table one by one and pore over them carefully. I would smell them up close and touch them repeatedly. The bindings of all of these books were unadorned and exquisite, and the pages were filled with Father’s notes. At moments like this, the emotions in my young heart soared beyond admiration and rapture. At the time, I also began reading books, most of them light literature. I couldn’t classify them together with Father’s books. I hungered for books that could keep me enthralled temporarily. After I read them, I was finished with them. I had no desire to keep them. And I couldn’t have kept them, even if I’d wanted to, for most of the books were borrowed. In those days, who could afford to buy books?

Father’s books stood quietly on the bookshelves—always silently luring me toward them. Subconsciously, I sensed a very profound world in those books. It would cost a person a lifetime to enter that world in depth. Father read those books at night, every night, for years. His contemplative expression behind his spectacles was certainly not a pose. What reading stirred up in his mind was much different from what I felt when I read ordinary books. What was that? No one could tell me—not even Father himself. He said only, “In the future, you must read all of my books.” Did he mean that in the future I should do as he had done—sit in front of the same book for years, steeped in meditation? I didn’t understand.

That day arrived at last—the time when I became formally attached to literature. I had several “serious books” of my own—and their numbers were gradually increasing. In my later days of exploration, I felt more and more that some books held magical power. In the densely packed words was an unfathomable world—the world of language or the world of literature, art, philosophy, or humanity. The strangest thing is that this is an interactive world: only when one strives hard to reach it through meditating does it stretch out and also reveal its rich layers. If you’re lazy in exploring, even if you’re gifted, you could probably only occasionally glimpse this wonderland, but never would you enter it. You would only be able to sigh with regret. A modern reader must not only read over and over, meditate over and over, but must also actually write—and in the process of writing expand the world that he or she has sensed. This is the most exhausting, yet also the most rewarding, reading.

An advanced modern reader acts like a detective. In the forest of books, he can follow the clues and discover the enormous treasures underlying them. Those books give him messages: his inner concentrated essence receives the messages and immediately produces new ones. These blended messages lead him to enter a tunnel of the spirit, and in that place he begins a great exploration. That process is both mysterious and clear-headed: these are the moments when the human and the numen meet. Serious books all have this attribute. If we want to find pleasure in modern reading, we must extract our inner essence to engage in this risky spiritual adventure.

Do you have serious books as companions? If you do, then you’re a person with a genuine spiritual pursuit.

《金发公主》和严肃书籍 © 2014 by Can Xue. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Karen Gernant and Chen Zeping. All rights reserved.

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