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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the November 2014 issue

“The Fair-haired Princess” and Serious Literature

《金发公主》和严肃书籍

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.

《金发公主》和严肃书籍

爸爸的书架上只有马列主义哲学书,书脊上面的一些字都被我记熟了,另一些我记不住,因为太抽象了。我每天在爸爸的书架前流连。忽然有一天,爸爸从图书馆借回了几本外国的童话书(他在图书馆被监督劳动,称之为“劳教”)。爸爸是借回来给姐姐看的,因为姐姐上小学了,认得好多字了。其中有一本叫“金发公主”,爸爸说了一遍,我就永远记住了那几个字。书的封面上画着一名少女,生着金黄色的长发,一直拖到脚踝那里。我的眼珠鼓得老大,久久地盯着那张画像。世界上怎么会有这么美丽的头发呢?要是我能得到一根那样的金头发,该有多么好!

好多天里头,只要拿起那本小书,便会有异样的激情在胸膛里高涨。我常趁着没人时仔细端详我的金发公主,我以为金发就是黄金的头发。而且那张脸多么的谦和秀气!想入了神之际,我就将书的封面贴在自己的脸颊上。要是坏人来了,我就要将金发公主藏在最最秘密的,谁都找不到的地方(比如说后面山坡上的那个土洞里),等坏人走了再接她出来;如果她没有东西吃饿坏了,我就要把家里惟一的黑母鸡生的蛋都拿出来送给她;还有爸爸昨天给的一粒糖,也送给她。我一定要和她好。

那本书久久都没有还给图书馆,我就把它当作我家的东西了。和邻居小孩吵架时,我突然提高了嗓门叫道:“哼,我有金发公主!你有吗?你有吗?!”当然,她没有,她被我的气势压倒了。

 

我是伴着书籍长大的。从很小的时候起,我脑子里就形成了这样一个印象,即,有些书籍是“严肃书籍”,不是一下子可以看得懂的,要等我“长大了”才能接触。爸爸书架上的那几排书就是“严肃”的,里头有西方哲学,马列主义,最显眼的是那套蓝色布面精装的《资本论》,还有几套大部头的中国古典文学史。我多年里头司空见惯的事就是,他每天都在读这些书,大部分都是一遍又一遍地读。

在台灯下,这些书散发出一种特殊的味道,说不出那是什么味道,总之引人遐想。那时候,我喜欢趁家人不在之际将那些书一本一本地摊到桌子上面细细打量。我用鼻子凑近了去嗅,用手反复地摩挲。那些书的装订全都朴素而精致,书里头则布满了父亲的的笔迹,也许,用“仰慕”、“欣喜”这些词都远远不能概括我那种朦胧的、神往的少年心理。那时我自己也开始读书了,大都是一些通俗书,我是不会将它们归到父亲的书那一类去的。我如饥似渴,什么书的短期刺激性最强就读什么,读完后那些书就不见了,没有收藏的冲动,也没有条件收藏,大部分书是借来的。那个时候谁买得起书啊。

父亲的书静静地躺在书架上,始终对我有种无言的诱惑,它们的存在让我下意识里感到,某些书籍里头有一个无比深邃的世界。如果一个人想进入那种地方去弄清某些事,他就得花费掉一生的时间。那灯下长年累月的夜读,那镜片后面冥思的眼神,当然不是为了装门面,当然也同我读那些通俗书产生的激动是迥异的。那么,那究竟是一种什么样的情形呢?那个时候,没人说得出,父亲也说不出,他只是说:“将来,我的这些书你都要读。”那么,将来我也会像他一样长年累月面前放着同一本书,既看又不看,沉浸在冥想之中吗?我不知道。

那一天终究到来了,那是我同文学正式结缘的时候。我手头也有了几本“严肃书”,并且它们的数目还在慢慢地增长着。在后来的探索的日子里,我越来越感到,某些书籍是会变魔术的。在密密麻麻的文字的下面,有一个莫测的世界,这个世界可以称作语言的世界,也可以称作文学、艺术、哲学或人性的世界。最奇怪的就是对于阅读者来说,这是一个互动的世界,只有你通过冥想的发力真正感觉到了她时,她才会延展,并显出自己的丰富层次。而如果你的阅读是懒惰的阅读,那么,哪怕你是一个有天分的人,那个奇妙的世界对于你来说也始终处在“偶尔露峥嵘”的阶段。你进去不了,只能为之叹息。一名现代读者不但要反复读,反复冥想,甚至还要动笔,在写的当中去拓展被你感到的那个世界。这是最辛苦,也是最有收获的阅读。

一名高级的具有现代精神的读者其实也是一名侦察,他能够在书籍的树林里根据某些蛛丝马迹发现下面的巨大宝藏。那些严肃书籍向他发出信息,他自己体内浓缩的精神接受了信息,并立刻产生新的信息。这种混合的信息引领着他进入精神的隧道,就在那个地方开始了伟大的揭示。那是既迷惘又清醒的过程,是人与神一次次晤面的瞬间。那些严肃的书籍都具有这类属性。我们作为读者,如果想要获得现代阅读的快感,就得从体内压榨出精神,就得去进行那种艰辛的冒险。

你已经有了伴随在身旁的严肃书籍吗?如果你对这个问题的回答是肯定的,那就说明了你是一个真正有精神追求的人。

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