reading


In 1920, Mao and his friends established the Cultural Book Society in Hunan. This was to be – through spreading new modes of thought – one part of a larger effort to establish an independent state of Hunan. In each of the books sold, the following notice was placed.

A Respectful Notice from the Cultural Book Society to the Gentleman Who Has Bought This Book

The fact that you, sir, have purchased this book will undoubtedly have a great influence on the progress of your thought, and on that we wish to congratulate you. If, after you have read this book, your unslakeable thirst for knowledge inclines you to buy a few more books to peruse, we invite you, sir, either to come once more to our society to purchase them, or to do so by correspondence. We are prepared to welcome you!

The items which our society has for sale have undergone a rigorous process of selection. They consist exclusively of comparatively valuable new publications (We want nothing to do with stale and outdated thought.) … Our goal is that the thought of everyone in Hunan should progress as yours has done, so as to bring about the emergence of a new culture …

We are profoundly mortified that our abilities are too meagre to shoulder the great responsibility of propagating culture, and we hope that superior men of goodwill from all walks of life will grant us their assistance. If you, sir, can help us by taking the trouble to introduce us by word of mouth, we shall be extremely grateful …

We wish you, sir, continued good health.

Colleagues of the Cultural Book Society

56 Chaozong Streetm Changsha

I am close to completing my article on the novel QNot only does it breathe the spirit of Engels, Kaustky and Bloch on the revolutionary decades of the Reformation (as well as expressing Gramsci’s longing that the Reformation had happened in Italy too), but the authors obviously enjoyed writing the thing. So a few select morsels:

On memory:

The road through memories is hazardous and bumpy: they’re always ready to betray you (105).

April just makes me scratch my scars: the geographical map of lost battles (114).

A bag full of trinkets rolling out by chance and finally amazing you, as though you weren’t the one who picked them up and turned them into precious objects (251).

On prophets:

But during these past ten years I’ve known so many of them, on every street corner, in every brothel, in the remotest churches. My peregrinations have been so studded with those encounters that I could write a treatise about them. Some of them were merely charlatans and actors, others believed in their own sincere terror, but only a very few had the stuff of prophets, the brilliance, the ardour, the courage to repaint John’s great fresco in the souls of men. They were capable of choosing the right words, seizing situations, taking the gravity of the moment and filling it with the imminent event, bringing it into the present moment (138).

A beggar among beggars, with a load of unbearable letters, memories and suspicions (119).

I haven’t done too badly as an exterminating angel (149).

On theology:

A silent fart in the divine plan (172).

They arrived in a black rage, they went home pissed as farts (208).

On travel:

You just feel that things can’t go on like this, that the walls, inside and out, are getting too close for you, and that your mind needs some fresh air, your body needs to feel the miles passing beneath you (235).

It takes quite something to beat January in these parts. It’s hot, the beach is irresistable, the days are long, the sun shines. But beyond that January has a distinct feel – the relaxed, mind-is-elsewhere, do-it-next-week feel. It matters little whether you are actually on holiday, having begun some time before Christmas, or whether you are back at ‘work’. For instance:

I walk into  main office and ask about something or other for which I’ve been waiting. The person behind the desk is reading a worn paperback, totally absorbed. She looks up at me blankly and takes quite a while to focus. ‘Oh, I think it’s on order but there’s a bit of a delay. Might be a couple of weeks’.

Someone calls me from Melbourne about a talk and radio stint at the end of the month. He is just back at work, has the dates wrong, forgets my name, has over 280 emails to deal with. ‘Why don’t you just hit mass delete?’ I suggest. ‘If anything is important, you’ll get another email’. ‘What a wonderful idea’, he says.

And then you have the ‘shutdown’. Many places simply shut everything down before Christmas and then open again around epiphany. Computers don’t work, doors are locked, no-one responds to anything. But is this counted as part of your holidays? Not at all all: four weeks holiday are on top of the two-week shutdown.

By this time of the evening I am in a comfy chair reading, looking out over the harbour, getting up to grab some second-hand binoculars acquired at the Berlin flee-markets to check out the name and structure and crew of the latest ship leaving or entering the harbour (that’s a navigation tower in the centre).

After the 1905 revolution, the tsar granted limited freedom of assembly, speech and the press. So Lenin, knowing full well the advantages of this new situation for socialist organisation, proposes the following:

It is high time, furthermore, to take steps to establish local economic strong points, so to speak, for the workers’ Social-Democratic organisations – in the form of restaurants, tea-rooms, beer-halls, libraries, reading-rooms, shooting galleries, etc., etc., maintained by Party members (Collected Works 10, p. 35).

Makes you want to ask where the socialist restaurants, tea-rooms, beer-halls are today. Are we missing something? Of course, shooting galleries had another purpose, as he points out in a footnote:

I do not know the Russian equivalent of tir [French], by which I mean a place for target practice, where there is a supply of all kinds of fire-arms and where anyone may for a small fee practise shooting at a target with a revolver or rifle. Freedom of assembly and association has been proclaimed in Russia. Citizens have the right to assemble and to learn bow to shoot; this can present no danger to anyone. In any big European city you will find such shooting galleries open to all, situated in basements, sometimes outside the city, etc. And it is very far from useless for the workers to learn how to shoot and how to handle arms.