Renowned musician's new library opens interesting chapter on reading and writing

The newly renovated Xiaosong Library, has a collection of 50,000 books, all selected by Gao Xiaosong and his team, covering categories of art, literature, history and philosophy. 

Renowned musician and talk show host Gao Xiaosong recently launched a new private library to promote more reading and writing in Hangzhou.

Xiaosong Library, in the northwestern outskirts of Hangzhou, is part of the Liangzhu Art Center designed by the Pritzker Prize winning architect Tadao Ando. The 5,000-square-meter center, which opened in June 2016, features a typical Ando exterior of fair-faced concrete and includes a community library, theater and an art museum.

The newly renovated library has a collection of 50,000 books, all selected by Gao and his team, covering categories of art, literature, history and philosophy. 

It has a limit of 300 visitors each day. Access is free but visitors must reserve before coming via their website or official Weibo or WeChat account.

On the day of its inauguration late last month, Gao told the press from across the country that opening a library was a dream-come-true for him.

“I grew up in a family of intellectuals and I’ve always dreamt of having a huge shelf of books reaching up to the ceiling. This place is what I have been looking for,” said Gao.

Hangzhou renowned writer and playwright Mai Jia with young readers at his newly opened Ideal Valley in Ningbo.

He also revealed at the ceremony that a “reading pals” program would be soon introduced so he could invite writers, professors, artists and entrepreneurs to share stories and opinions on reading.

Posts mentioning the library on his personal Weibo account reveal the popular appeal of a cultural figure like Gao, where there have been over 29,000 likes, while the library’s first WeChat post has received 70,844 views so far.

Reservations have been a bit difficult. Xie Yanping, a reader from Shaoxing City, told Shanghai Daily that the weekends were generally fully booked.

It is not Gao’s first library in the nation. 

Zashuguan (Za Library), where he is also the director, was opened in 2015 in rural Beijing. It keeps a collection of nearly 1 million books, including rare editions of antiquarian texts, celebrity manuscripts and periodicals from the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the Republic of China (1912-1949).

“But Zashuguan is mainly an academic institution dealing with collections of rare books, not an ideal place for reading. Xiaosong Library is a place for reading open to the general public,” said Gao.

Among his many social identities, Gao’s bespoke cultural talk show “Xiaoshuo” (Xiao Speaks) brought him much wider publicity. It has been broadcasted on for three seasons and the 2018 series has been played 1.39 billion times online.

“Many books I have recommended or talked about were soon sold out in book stores. So I think it promotes reading,” said Gao. “Even if you have listened to the outline of a book, you will buy to read it through (if it’s good enough).”

Reading takes many forms today and it’s not only limited to a paper edition. Mai Jia, a reputed writer and playwright based in Hangzhou, agrees on that. 

“I read a lot on my smartphone,” he told Shanghai Daily. “It does not matter on paper or electronically, as long as people are reading. The problem with a smartphone is that you will be interrupted too frequently.”

  High shelves of books at Xiaosong Library 

As a full-time writer, Mai said he spent three hours reading every day. Mai told an audience in 2017 that he had little to show in terms of published work because he spent most of his time reading with his followers online.

A project called “Reading with Mai Jia” was initiated by Mai and his team last July and has accumulated over 600,000 followers on its WeChat account.

Experienced writers and broadcasters were invited to streamline a book into seven sections and present seven audio-embedded posts on WeChat. Members need to pay 99 yuan (US$15.8) for a yearly service, which includes Mai’s exclusive audios and 48 audio-content books.

Non-members can buy a single book at a much lower price. They have also opened an online community to encourage members to check in when they finish their reading each day.

The books are selected by Mai, which are all literary works ranging from the Four Great Classic Novels of China, works from Nobel Prize winners, recent bestsellers, such as R. J. Palacio’s “Wonder” as well as Mai’s own fiction “Decoded.” 

The project is actually an extension of Mai’s own brick-and-mortar private library Ideal Valley (Lixiang Gu). 

The library was opened at Xixi Creative Industrial Park in Hangzhou in 2013, next door to his studio, where it has become a sacred place for many readers and literature lovers.

Everything is free: 10,000 books, comfortable sofas and tea. But at the same time rules must be observed: no WiFi, no phones, not even ringtones are welcome.

The place is not spacious and visitors have to take off their shoes upon entering. There are two more rooms upstairs where young and impoverished writers may apply to take up residence free for up to three months.

One of Mai’s most reassuring moments is seeing his library full of visitors from all four corners of the world.

“When I saw so many people were reading I felt relieved,” added Mai. “Because there is one more person in the world who can set his/her heart at ease. In a world dominated by fickleness and vanity, that has become a difficult thing. But I believe books can do that.”

Maintaining such a library has not been easy and all expenses come from Mai’s own earnings. The first year cost him 800,000 yuan in renovation, purchasing books and other operational expenses. But he insisted that things should remain free and open. 

“Everything I receive today is from books and literature. So I hope to give back and reconnect with my readers, especially young people,” said Mai.

He told Shanghai Daily his wealth allows him to run his small library but the writer could not afford to keep another one.

In the past five years Mai has received offers to open and invest in other libraries, but he declined the offers because he didn’t find suitable partner.

“I don’t want to turn it into a business and I also cherish my reputation,” stated Mai.

A second Ideal Valley opened in Ningbo City on April 10. The place is part of a local state-owned Xinhua Bookstore and will be operated by the staff there. Mai copied his brand and his service of selecting books, offering tea and organizing seminars, reading clubs and writing camps.

Yu Huize, general manager of the local Xinhua Bookstore said it was a new experiment by partnering with Mai and they hoped it would bring more readers to the store.

Such an alliance may bring vitality to traditional bookstores like Xinhua, which are being highly affected by the booming e-commerce business in China and have been shifting their emphasis from purchase to service. But concerns have also been raised if these private libraries led by public figures are really attracting the right people.

In a recent visit to Xiaosong Library, Liu Yanli spent an hour inside with her friend. 

“The books were interesting but some people were just taking photos,” she told Shanghai Daily.

But Gao was not worried about that. 

“As long as it brings peace to your mind, no matter it is from the books, the environment, the cherry blossoms out of the window, or even from your companion, for me this is a successful library,” said Gao.

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