Book fair attests to timeless joys of reading

Wang Yong
With health precautions in place, the city's annual book fair is once again offering local bibliophiles the chance to expand their minds and horizons.
Wang Yong

It’s that time of year again, when the city teems with book lovers who gather to share the otherwise solitary joy of reading.

With preventive measures against COVID-19 in place, the 17th Shanghai Book Fair opened today, much to the pleasure of local bibliophiles. To create a safe and comfortable environment for visitors, this year’s exhibition area has been expanded to 26,000 square meters, over 10 percent more space than before. Other precautions include mask requirements, thermal testing and visits at staggered hours.

The staging of the 2020 Shanghai Book Fair amid a conscious concern for health attests to the appeal of the annual event. One episode last week indicates how eager people are to attend. A group of senior citizens began lining up outside a downtown bookstore at 6am on August 6, the first day tickets to the fair were sold offline. They waited until the bookstore opened at 10am. One old man told a reporter that he hadn’t missed any fair since it was launched in 2004. Some young people also queued up to collect paper tickets as souvenirs.

The enjoyment of reading defies easy description or definition, because different readers derive different pleasures in the solitary undertaking. But, if the history of books since the invention of movable type is any guide, one can safely say that books exercise people's brains for deep thinking and broad understanding.

We don’t have to go all the way back to the Song Dynasty (960-1279) for the world’s first known movable type made of clay. A glimpse of Europe’s experience since Johannes Gutenberg came up with mechanical movable type in the 15th century would suffice to prove the unprecedented popularity of print books among a great part of the populace who gradually became the books they read through deep thinking.

“The deepening extended beyond the page,” wrote Nicholas Carr in his book “The Shallows,” a New York Times bestseller. “It’s no exaggeration to say that the writing and reading of books enhanced and refined people’s experience of life and of nature.”

Carr added that the accelerated spread of books allowed readers to compare their thoughts and experiences with those of others. “The literary mind, once confined to the cloisters of the monastery and the towers of the university, had become the general mind.” 

Even today, with the rise of electronic reading, a print book can only be displaced but not replaced, he says, because it ensures the quiet of deep reading without the kind of eye fatigue or mind distractions in the world of electronic screens.

For sure, both print and electronic books offer an experience of immersive reading, so long as the reader can concentrate his or her attention on the food for thought, if any, in a book. Fundamentally speaking, a good book, whether copied by a scribe or printed on a letterpress, contributes to the growth of our mind and the expansion of our vision.

Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), one of the first modern European historians, observed that a man of learning, “by reading and reflection, multiplies his own experience, and lives in distant ages and remote countries.”

It was exactly in this spirit that a British publishing house recently compiled a collection of short stories about Shanghai written by local writers. As a representative from Britain's CommaPress said to my colleague in a recent e-mail interview: “People have always wanted to read work from other cultures and different perspectives, and it's especially true at the moment. We know that the way foreign cultures are depicted in our national media is often a misrepresentation … That's why literature — fiction especially — is so important … With so many walls and divisions being erected right now, we need to remind ourselves that there is humanity — complicated, diverse, creative, contradictory humanity — on the other side of the wall, just as there is on our side of it.”

Good books brook no bias. Reading them goes a long way toward making a better world of lettered men and women who listen to their inner voices and the voices of others.

Special Reports