Books

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Last week, I wrote an article about a reading plan for taking my Chinese to the next level. In order to have a clearer starting point and allow others to understand better what I’m doing and how things are going, this article details all books I’ve read in Chinese so far. I will keep it updated as I read more books.

The following list consists of all books I’ve read in Chinese so far. I have only included…

  • …books written for native speakers
  • …books not written for children
  • …books I’ve read from cover to cover

That means that I haven’t included dozens of textbooks for foreigners, untold numbers of newspaper articles, papers, theses and so on, neither have I included books for children or other learning materials which aren’t aimed towards adults. I might have forgotten a book or two, but this list should be almost complete (with approximate dates). In case I have written something about my experience reading the book, I have provided a link.

Naturally, there’s a huge difference in time spent per book. 《實用現代漢語語法》is 500+ pages of grammar and probably took ten times longer to read than《茫點》, which is a fairly short and easy-to-read novel. Even though my own Chinese ability also influences speed, I would argue that the main reason I didn’t read more earlier is simply because…. I didn’t read. Obviously, reading《潰雪》(that’s Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson) in 2011 took some serious time and I could have read at least five easier novels in that time, but this isn’t important. Regardless of how I measure reading in Chinese, the measurement is going to be crude and I’m fine with that. Book length and complexity probably balances out in the end anyway.

Books I’ve read in Chinese so far (2013-12-14):

  • 2010-07: 《孔子的部落格》 陳峰、夢亦非
  • 2010-09: 銀河公民》 羅伯特·海萊因
  • 2011-02: 《鍊金術士》 保羅·科而賀
  • 2011-04: 《世界大戰》 H.G.威爾斯
  • 2011-11: 《潰雪》 尼爾·史蒂芬森
  • 2012-03: 《華語文教學規範與理論基礎》 葉德明
  • 2012-06: 《空想科學》 柳田理科雄
  • 2012-08: 《漢語語法:修訂版》 李納、湯姆遜
  • 2012-11: 犀照》 倪匡
  • 2013-01: 《天觀雙俠》 鄭丰
  • 2013-01: 《華語語音學》 葉德明
  • 2013-02: 《實用現代漢語語法》 劉月華、潘文娛、故辭
  • 2013-02: 《跟狗狗一起學物理》 查德·歐澤
  • 2013-02: 茫點》 倪匡
  • 2013-03: 《三體》 劉慈欣
  • 2013-03: 《漢語音韻》 耿志堅
  • 2013-04:《世界之眼(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-05:《世界之眼(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-05:《謝謝你離開我》 張小嫻
  • 2013-06:《大狩獵(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-07:《大狩獵(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-08:《在世界盡頭遇見台灣》 羅聿
  • 2013-09:《活著》 余華
  • 2013-09:《漢字書法之美》 蔣勳
  • 2013-09:《黑天鵝語錄》 納西姆·尼可拉斯·塔雷伯
  • 2013-10:《老子的部落格》 曹鴻濤
  • 2013-10:《真龍轉生(上)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-11:《真龍轉生(下)》 羅伯特·喬丹
  • 2013-11:《飢餓遊戲》 蘇珊·柯林斯
  • 2013-11:《空想科學読本(2)》 柳田理科雄
  • 2013-11:《棋王》 阿城
  • 2013-12:《星火燎原》 蘇珊·柯林斯
  • 2013-12:《科幻世界的哲學凝視》 陳瑞麟
  • 2013-12:《空想科學読本(3)》 柳田理科雄

Books I’m currently reading:

  • 那些年,我們呢一起追的女孩
  • 空想科學読本(3)

2013-03-21 update

As you can see, I’m well on my towards reading 25 books this year. I have already read six books so far, which is almost equal to the number of books I read in 2011 and 2012 combined. If we extrapolate this number, I will end up with 25-30 books before the end of 2013.

If I keep that going, I will reach 100 books in about three years. Of course, steadily improving reading speed should increase the number of books, but there will inevitably be periods when I read less, which cancels out any speed improvements. I will update this article whenever I finish reading a book, although I might not write reviews of all the books I read.

2013-09-19 update

Apparently, I didn’t read as much as I planned to during summer, so I’m somewhat behind schedule. Considering that I read one extra book early, only started falling behind in June. Providing that I read one more book this month, I will be three books behind schedule (or four since the goal is actually 25 this year, not 24 or two books per month). That’s quite a lot considering that I still read fairly slowly. Still, I have some interesting books available and I’m sure I can find the time. I haven’t given up yet, 25 books is still within reach!

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I have come a very long way since I started learning Chinese little more than five years ago. I can read novels, academic papers, textbooks, newspapers and most other types of writing I come across, without using a dictionary. I can even do so without thinking that language is a major problem. Of course, I don’t read terribly fast (about 200 characters per minute for easier newspaper articles; much slower for heavy academic reading), but I would say that I’m literate in Chinese.

The relationship between input and output when learning languages isn’t obvious, but the theory I tend to adhere to the most is that massive amounts of input gives a solid foundation on which a near-native output ability can be built. This is true for both listening/speaking and reading/writing, but in this article I will only talk about the latter. In other words, reading huge amounts of Chinese will hopefully give me the potential to acquire a near-native level of writing in Chinese.

Looking back at how I learnt English

Back ground: I have spent a total of three weeks in English-speaking countries and have learnt most of what I know in normal compulsory education plus a lot of reading/listening on my own. How did I achieve my current English level?

After having learnt how to communicate most things I wanted to say/write in English (which probably happened in high school), I spent an awful amount of time reading in English. I also listened to loads of audio books. I estimate that I have read or listened to about five hundred books in English. That’s a lot, even compared with educated native speakers. This gave me a very solid passive knowledge of English. but it didn’t make me good at speaking and writing, at least not directly.

Turning this passive knowledge into increased writing ability came only in 2006 when I started studying English at university. I found that I was usually able to intuitively tell whether a sentence was grammatically correct or not; sometimes words I couldn’t even tell what they meant popped up in my mind, seemingly from nowhere, and when I looked them up, they actually turned out to fit into the sentence I was writing.

However, reading isn’t enough to become good at writing. I don’t mean to say that I’m a brilliant writer in English (or any other language), but I do think I have mastered the basics and that I’m slowly inching my way towards actually being able to write well. This is mostly because of the fact that I’ve written at least a thousand pages of text in English during the last five years. When I say a thousand pages, we’re talking about composition, so chatting or any other kind of sporadic typing obviously doesn’t count.

I think that the best way to reach a native writing ability is to read an awful lot and spend a thousand hours or so of deliberate practice converting that passive knowledge into active writing ability. Naturally, these aren’t serial processes; it’s perfectly possible (and advisable) to both at once. However, I do believe input is where most students fail.

Taking my Chinese to the next level

Even though I can express myself fluently and with reasonably accuracy both in speaking and writing, my Chinese is still very limited compared to my English or Swedish. Sometimes, that leaves me very frustrated, but then I think of the amount of time invested in the other two languages and find that the comparison isn’t fair. Swedish is my native language, so I didn’t have much choice that to study it for thousands and thousands of hours before English and French appeared in school. Regarding English, I’m not a native speaker, but as I’ve already explained, I have spent some serious time studying English.

I have probably spent more than ten thousand hours learning Chinese so far, but that’s just a small fraction of the time I’ve spent on the other two languages. With that in mind, who am I to say that Chinese feels impossible to learn at times? Shouldn’t I at least spend as much time learning Chinese as I’ve spent learning English before I say it’s hard? I think I should. Chinese is obviously harder than English to learn for native speakers of Swedish, but that doesn’t mean that the method I used to learn English won’t work for Chinese. Sure, it might not take me to the same proficiency level, but I will definitely close the gap.

Thus, I intend to read a lot. My general plan is to try to reach a hundred books as quickly as possible (novels, textbooks, prose). In this article, I will outline a plan. After that, I will publish a list of what I’ve read so far and then keep that list updated.

A reading plan for 2013

My goal is to read at least 25 books in 2013. It doesn’t really matter what books I read as long as they meet certain criteria (for adults, for native speakers, read from cover to cover). In order to make sure that I have a strong enough motivation, my plan is to mix books I really want to read with books that I feel that I ought to read but might not enjoy that much.

For instance, I just finished reading the first part of 三體, but instead of starting on the second part immediately, I will add something dryer in between and continue with 三體 as a kind of reward once I’m done with the next book. In general, the plan looks as follows:

  1. Read lightweight books (novels) if I’m behind schedule
  2. Read heavier books (textbooks) if I’m ahead of schedule

As I just did with 倪匡, I will review and write about my quest to find good science fiction in Chinese. Next on the review list is 三體, but I’ll most likely wait with reviewing that until I’ve read the two sequels. As for the rest of the books I plan to read, I will write about them only if I feel like it, so don’t expect too much.

Looking back at the road behind me, I know that I’ve come far. Looking at the road that stretches out in front of me, I realise that most of the journey is still ahead. Reading a hundred books in Chinese won’t be enough to reach an educated native level, but it will propel me in the right direction. Hopefully, I will also enjoy the scenery as I walk.

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Bedevilled books

I while ago, I wrote a post about the irrational and insatiable urge to own printed books (see Beloved books). My conclusion was that even though I know there are a number of convincing arguments against buying lots of books, I still do, because at that time, I thought that the perceived advantages simply trumped the disadvantages. Since then, I’ve changed my way of thinking a bit, and as a result of this, I will consciously avoid buying news books in the future. In this post, I’ll explain why I’ve changed my mind.

But why?

Before I go through the various exceptions to this seemingly harsh rule of not buying new books, I’m going to talk briefly about the rationale behind the decision. Buying books is simply a waste, and it comes with very few genuine advantages. It wastes money, paper, the environment and so on. It makes it harder to move house, and even though I still think a huge number of accumulated books is very nice to look at, I don’t think that there are enough arguments to keep on adding to the pile.

Two of the advantages with printed books that I pointed out in the original post are that they are nice to look at and that they constitute a good way of presenting myself as a person. However, I think that neither of these will suffer I stop buying books as before. I own around 800 books and, living in a small apartment as I will most likely do, that’s more than enough to get the living-in-a-library feeling. Buying fewer books and getting rid old, bad ones should further enhance the representational value of a book collection, not decrease it!

Some exceptions

Naturally, there are a few exceptions when I will buy books anyway. If any of these applies, I will try to buy the book second hand. If that also fails, I will consider buying it new, but as you can see, that will be very rare indeed.

1. I can’t borrow the book, either from a library or friends
2. I want to keep the book for reference (seldom fiction)
3. I need to take detailed notes in the book
4. The book is so good I want to be able to lend it to friends

As you can see, this will almost entirely eliminate the number of new books I plan to buy. In fact, my goal will be to not buy any new books at all, as long as I’m not forced to for some reason (such as text books and course material).

What about electronic books?

The observant reader will have noticed that I haven’t mentioned what seems to be all the rage now: electronic books. I have tried to read books on screen and even if I this is occasionally okay, I don’t own a device which is portable enough to be convenient and which, at the same time, offers a screen good enough for comfortable reading. However, this is an option that I will try to explore more, because I feel that that’s really the only rational direction to go, although I don’t feel any need to run. The future belongs to the e-books, no doubt about it.

What do you think about e-books? Have you stopped buying printed books altogether or do you feel a shiver down your spine every time you think about reading something on a screen?

Books I already own

What about the books I already own? A rough estimate tells me that at the moment, I own around 800 books. A large number of these books are books that if I didn’t own them, they would never fulfill any of the above criteria to bought new. However, most of them I have bought used and very cheaply (or even received as gifts), so they weigh more in terms of kilograms than imagined weight on my conscience.

Still, I plan to go through the books I have and get rid of the books that I neither have read nor want to read. I don’t know how I will do this yet, but I will try to sell them somehow. If that doesn’t work, perhaps I can swap them or simply donate them to charity. In any case, I don’t plan to move all my books with me next time I move house, which might be sooner rather than later. Trimming my book collection will be a gradual and painful process.

In any case, I still love books, both reading them and owning them, but I feel that I can no longer continue wasting money and resources buying things I could find used or in electronic format. Yes, I do like to live in a library, but I already have enough books to do that. If I really need more books later, the second hand market on the internet is quite extensive. So, no more new books from now on, if it can be avoided!

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Online Highlights 6

It’s time for another round of Online Highlights. Since all things on the internet are found through linking or references by others (such as this post), thanks to those who, passively and actively, helped me out this time.

Blog Metrics – When I wrote the post celebrating post 1000 a couple of weeks ago, I said that I’d written about two million characters. Martin kindly pointed out that there is a WordPress plugin called Blog Metrics, which calculated such things. It only returns the number of words (461 530), but a checking my average character-per-word ration (around 6), that gives closer to 2.8 million characters. Using the same comparison as Martin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment consists of a mere one million characters.

Hi-Games.net – This site provides a free virtual Rubik’s cube (of various sizes), as well as some other games, such as Tetris, Minesweeper and a typing test.

Method of Loci – Learning to solve Rubik’s cube blindfolded, it’s essential to learn some basic memory techniques, and the loci method is probably one of the oldest in the game. It’s a bit crude, but the concepts used are extremely powerful and can be improved in many ways.

Mind Tools – I haven’t yet had time to explore this site in any greater datail, but it’s also the result of my blindfolded cubing. On this site, there are lots of techniques and tricks to improve mental capacity. So far, I’ve mostly been interested in memory, but there is much, much more.

Photographic memory – Not many people have photographic memory, but this guy certainly has (he has autism, too). After a viewing Rome, a city he’s never seen from the sky, from an aircraft for less than an hour, he spends three days drawing an almost perfect 360-degree panoramic picture of the city.

Google’s opt-out village – I always like people who can say something quite serious, but still make people laugh. This time it’s The Onion who’s done it again, aiming for the information gathering aspects of Google’s dominance. If you don’t like their monitoring you, perhaps you would like to move to the opt-out village?

BensonThe Economist is on average very well-written, but few sections are as good as the obituaries (they are even published in a best-of format separately for people do buy). Last weeks edition sported an obituary of a deceased fish, Benson, beautifully concluding with a parallel between Benson and wisdom: “And there she lay, like Wisdom drawn up from the deep: as golden, and as quiet.”

Personal Library Kit – I always say that I want to live in a library, and this $16 kit takes me a bit closer to my dream. Part of the reason to have a library is of course that you can lend books to your friends, so why not do it properly with this handy kit?

Last.fm Normalizer – I’ve been using Last.fm for more than three years to keep track of what I’m listening to. One complaint has always been that Last.fm only counts the number of times a track has been played, ignoring the length of the track. This should disrupt the stats, since some artists have on average very long tracks. This was confirmed by this handy website. On my top 50 artists list, the biggest winner was Shpongle, who rose from 34th to 16th place, and the biggest loser was Robyn Miller, who plumeted from 13th to 34th place.

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Beloved books

Taken as a whole, reading books is by far the most expensive hobby in my life. I currently own around 600 books, and even though most of them are bought extremely cheap, acquired second-hand or gifted by family and friends, but that does not change the fact that hundreds of them have been bought new at market prices. Of course, I have bought books for many years, but even taken per year, literature accounts for a significant part of my spendings on spare-time activities.

Providing that I like to read, which is taken for granted in this post, most of the time there is no apparent reason to buy the books I want to read. Our libraries, both the municipality one and those on campus, are pretty well stocked to handle most requests. Given that I read a lot of science-fiction, I would have to borrow some books from my friends, who are like me in this craving for printed books. This means that it would be perfectly possible, even legal, to consume as many books as I have done, but pay perhaps ten percent of the money I have spent so far.

The big question here is of course: Why? I have considered this question a lot of times, especially when poised to order another shipment of books from an online bookstore, even though I know fully well it will take me years to read what I already have. The answer has to be somewhere outside the reading experience itself, or at least, that is what I will assume for now. I will give a few hypotheses as to why I like having books; then I hope we can compare and see if you agree or have more insightful things to add.

First, having a lot of books enables me to lend books to friends. For instance, if I read a book I really like, I would like others to read it, too, which is made much easier if they do not have to buy the book themselves (or find it in the library). Also, this kind of thinking has given rise to an informal network among friends, where everybody buys for his own sake, but where everybody is prepared to share with others. This enables us to share the cost or inconvenience of obtaining books that are out of print, difficult to get or not interesting enough to buy individually. Even though I am sure my friends would not stop me from borrowing book if I did not contribute myself, I still feel it is a nice setup and something I would like to support.

Second, books sitting in a bookcase look adorable. I like having books as an integral part of my apartment, especially when it is a small one without much space for other things. Now and then, we make half-serious jokes about wanting to live in a small library, but perhaps there is more truth to that than might be apparent at first glance. I also think books feel nice, and I enjoy fooling around with them (such as arranging them, handling them for various purposes and so forth). I think this is something intrinsic to books in general and has nothing to do with the fact that they happen to be mine.

Third, a personal collection of books provide a useful self-presentation. If a complete stranger walks in to my apartment, there is a fair chance the he or she is at least mildly interested in reading (most of my friends are), which will inevitably lead to a quick overview of what kinds of books I read. Two valuable things can be obtained from this. To begin with, I am pretty sure that my personality is mirrored in what books I read. Seeing a lot of science-fiction, classic English literature, books about language (primarily Chinese and English), a person might get a quick glance of my taste and background. Furthermore, we can almost always find common favourites or at least shared experiences from which a conversation can ensue.

Fourth, the advantage of having a lot of books close by should not be overlooked, even though it might be obvious. Reference literature and language-related books are essential for me, something I have noticed here in Taiwan, where I of course have no means of accessing my books at home, in Sweden. Apart from that, re-reading fiction is also an option, or checking various sections of old books. This is especially useful if one’s ambition is to become an author oneself, in which case checking what other authors do is sometimes a great help.

Fifth, there has to be some sort of vanity in all this, perhaps in connection with the self-presentation mentioned above. Having a lot of books implies that I am interested enough in reading to spend lots of money on it. Of course, it also presents myself as a certain kind of person, perhaps with a specific set of talents. It will of course have no effect whatsoever in people who do not read, but for those who read, it will have some effect. The mirrored situation is definitely true: I can feel both at a loss when I visit somebody who simply have no books, and greatly impressed by people who have a large quantity of books, especially if they are still young.

So, why do I post this article? Normally, I have pretty clear, rational reasons for what I do, especially if the behaviour is sustained over time. Buying books, however, sometimes seems to fail this criterion, which is why I find it interesting to elaborate a bit on the motives behind the action. Also, i would like to hear your opinions about this. If you read and buy books, do you agree with my five motives? Which one is most important for you? If you read a lot, but seldom buy books, I assume that you do not agree with my reasoning; which points do you agree with and which do you find irrelevant? Even though I feel that I have made my best to explain my point of view, I stil think buying books is a mystery, so please help me solve it!

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