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Reading won't help you get ahead
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By Wang Yong

"Why read books?" One old acquaintance of mine, a trader, bridled at my question the other day about which books she had been reading.

"Books can't bring you money, so why bother?" she retorted, half puzzled and half sneering.

On the same day, another old acquaintance, an editor, told me that he no longer writes or edits articles. He seemed not too disappointed, quite resigned to relinquishing his typewriter and blue pencil.

"Didn't you know that I've been hands-off editorial matters for a long time? Now my priority is to organize commercial events for my newspaper - and I always stay in the best hotel in a city for that business," he whispered, searching for some sign of admiration.

Another day, a third old acquaintance, also an editor, asked me: "Do you still write articles?" I replied: "Sure, I'm a journalist and writing is in my blood." There was silence between us. I knew what she had meant by that short question and why she had no interest in further conversation with someone who still toiled as a mere writer.

In her eyes, as in the eyes of many other Chinese journalists, to be a writer all one's life is the sign of the ultimate failure of a journalist. Writing is all well and good if you're just starting out, but journalists should seek advancement to positions of authority in which they no longer need to write. At the very least, they should seize lucrative opportunities to get some "gray" income by doing some PR or advertorials for businesses.

These are just three examples of how some educated elites view reading and writing with scorn.

There are, however, serious readers and writers and I'm fortunate enough to have found them either as my bosses or my colleagues.

If I were asked to look back and say what about Shanghai Daily attracted me most, I would say it was the luxury of reading and writing that I could have found in no other place that I knew.

That said, denigration of thoughtful reading has definitely defined our times, both within and beyond China. I'm not as worried as my colleague Wan Lixin whether the illiterate will inherit the earth - online reading of "fast-food" is on the rise - but I'm as concerned as he about the future of serious reading, and the reading of classics.

Amid the current global calls for both rethinking a consumerist way of life and consuming more to prop up faltering economies, no one is calling for the consumption of books and reading the classics.

Most economists seem to believe that everything will fall into place once everyone buys a car and a house and stocks up on consumer goods. That's not true. The truth is that nothing will fall into place unless people learn to be moral and ethical.

Daniel Cloud, who teaches philosophy at Princeton University, wrote in an article published in Shanghai Daily on April 1 ("Hubris and blind belief in market 'science' led us to a disaster"): "But a market is not a rocket, and economists not rocket scientists, and moral hazard is, in human affairs, the risk that matters most."


The United States has embraced conspicuous consumption since the 1970s when neo-liberalist economic policies took hold, destroying trade unions, lowering taxes for the rich and encouraging Americans to borrow to live. The result? Hubris (over capitalist "superiority") and greed (on Wall Street) combined to sap the world's most developed economy, with a rippling effect on the global financial landscape.

While confidence in consumption does matter for an economic recovery, what matters more to the global economy is the knowledge of what to consume and what to reject. There's a limit to how many cars and houses one can afford to buy, but there's never a limit to how many times we can "talk" with the classics. A few weeks ago I spent 300 yuan (US$44) to buy a complete set of Shakespeare in a Shanghai bookstore, to the amazement of a sales lady. She couldn't understand why someone would buy "such expensive" books nowadays. But most ladies in town wouldn't blink an eye about spending 300 yuan or more for a haircut that will last no more than one month.

Harold Bloom, a professor of humanities at Yale University, wrote in his book "The Western Canon": "All that the Western canon can bring one is the proper use of one's own solitude, that solitude whose final form is one's confrontation with one's own morality."

Not all online "fast-food" novels are rubbish, for sure, but heed this test for the canonical as suggested by Harold Bloom: "Unless it demands rereading, the work does not qualify."

A Shanghai TV program last week invited a Chinese professor of history to talk about how to deeply read Chinese classics. I watched it almost every night. The pity was it was broadcast at 10:30pm. Prime time often went to sensational talks shows featuring big-mouth scholars who hadn't a scrap of respect for professional integrity.

(Shanghai Daily April 7, 2009)

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