Why I Collect Books
I am a book collector, with about 50 thousand books in my collection or family library.
These days, I was very often asked the question “Why do you collect books?” Today, the World Book Day, I was asked the question by three different journalists, and I gave three answers. When they left, I recollected my answers, and put them together, making an overall answer as follows.
I collect books, because I want to build a small library for my reading, my research, and my teaching. The books in my collection are not just such material things as printed sheets bound together, but primarily classics and famous monographs in the various fields in which I explore, to which I travel, and around which I sightsee. I explore in the fields of philosophy, education, literature, management and art, not for any academic purposes, but for self amusement and improvement. I travel to the fields closely related to the ones in which I explore. And I sightsee around all the fields that arouse my curiosity, not only those of humanities and social sciences, but also those of natural, technological and engineering sciences.
I collect books, because public libraries can neither satisfy my curiosity and nor attend my demands. Books in a public library mean, not works, but copies, with very often more than ten copies of one single work. I collect, in most cases, only one copy of one work, or one copy of one volume of one multi-volume work, or one copy of one edition of one work; and therefore, with 50 thousand books, my family library is almost as big as a public library with 500 thousand books, and 10 times as big as a public library with 50 thousand books.
I collect books, because I don’t like to waste the money I earned out of hard labour. In the early 1980s, when I was still a poor young man living from hand to mouth, out of pure economic ignorance, I wasted some of my money in the visits to public libraries. In most public libraries, one could borrow two books and keep them for one month; beyond one month, he or she could either return and borrow them again for another month, or pay some fine, from 1 Chinese fen up to tens of Chinese fen (for books sold for over 5 Chinese yuan, the fine might be 0.5% of the price) for a book a day, to keep them for some more days. I once borrowed two books, the one sold at 2 yuan (1 Chinese yuan = 10 Chinese jiao = 100 Chinese fen) and the other 1.5 yuan, and I spent 2 yuan and 2 long afternoons on the travels in jerky buses to borrow and to return them, and lost the opportunity to earn 2 yuan (I could earn 2 yuan a day, or 60 yuan a month in the early 1980s). Days after returning the books, when reading the cards of quotations, I suddenly realized that I had spent 4 yuan (excluding the money on cards) on meaningless labouring, and that if I bought the two books I might have saved 0.5 yuan and collected 2 books.
I collect books, because the mine-ness of my books can better concentrate me on reading, thinking and writing. In the middle 1970s, when I was a teenage farmer in a country village, I found some older farmers reading the novel Waterside Outlaws (Shui Hu), scanned over few pages and fell immediately for it. It was a special edition, in some three volumes, published for mass criticism. I borrowed the middle volume. I was then a slow reader, and finished only about ten chapters (or hui in Chinese) of the volume with two oil-lamped nights. In the third evening, when I finished two pages, the watch dogs shouted to tell me that there were visitors coming. And almost as loudly as the watch dogs, two adult farmers shouted, “Over with your reading? We are waiting!” One of them was the owner and the other was the waiting reader. The book was soon away with them.
I collect books, not for the sake of mere collection, nor in the manner of a commercial specialist who collects books of one special category or in one special field, or books published by one special publisher in different times or different publishers in one special time.
Books, to me, are not mere books in collection, but minds speaking at forums or at lectures beyond limits of time and space.
(April 23, 2014)