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A Beijing bookstore where George Washington is on the shelves

After the brutal suppression of China’s 1989 democracy movement, Liu Suli, a student leader who had narrowly escaped being gunned down near Tiananmen Square, recalled a boyhood dream as he brooded in his prison cell.

If he owned a bookstore, he had mused at the age of 7, he wouldn’t have to spend money on books. From behind bars, and with his entrepreneurial drive still intact, he saw his dream in a different light. A bookstore might be a more plausible way to pursue the freedom of ideas that he and hundreds of thousands of others had failed to win with public protest.

He got out of jail fairly quickly. The authorities lightened up a bit. He opened a bookstore and ordered an eclectic range of volumes that leaned toward philosophy, history, political science and an ample dose of Western thought.

And now the All Sages Bookstore, a haven of precisely arranged shelves and display tables, thrives on the low-rent second floor of a nondescript building near Peking University.

A survivor of Beijing’s ferocious property market — it has moved three times since 1993 — and the government’s extremely tight censorship in the era of President Xi Jinping’s rule, the store represents an independent political spirit in an authoritarian one-party state.

A large image of Bertrand Russell, the British philosopher and freethinker, stands out among a galaxy of literary posters lining the wall of the entry staircase, a taste of what’s to come.

“China is not a liberal society, it’s not a free country,” Mr. Liu said, sitting in a quiet corner of the Thinkers Cafe, a mellow hangout within the store that meanders along a side corridor to a small back room furnished with antique Chinese furniture.

“But the bookstore is a way to express our longing for freedom and our hope for the establishment of a free society,” he said.

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Rebuilding Mosul, book by book

Before the war, it was strange to see smoke in the sky.

Fahad Sabah looked out on the city from the roof of his home with a bad feeling in his stomach. He saw black, thick, heavy smoke rising over the river that bisects the city. He went down to the basement and pulled out a flat box about seventy-five centimeters wide. It contained his most prized possessions—a satellite dish, and a stack of books.

If anyone saw him, he’d likely have been executed in the public square.

Firing up the satellite in the stairwell leading to up to the roof, he managed to get a signal: a scratchy evening news report. A short line with the name of his alma mater scrolling at the bottom of the screen caught his attention. The words brought him to sudden, surprised tears.

The smoke he saw earlier that day was from the library at Mosul University. The men who had taken over his city, and made reading books into a crime, had burned down the library. In a day, thousands of volumes were lost. With them went a thread that had bound the city together for generations.

It was February 3, 2015—the 219th day of the caliphate.

*

Long before the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, proclaimed its empire, Fahad spent years in the University of Mosul, and knew its library like the back of his hand. Each of its sections, stacks, and bookshelves are like a photograph in his mind. He and his wife had their first date in the library’s engineering section. When she noticed poems scribbled in the margins of his notebooks and asked about their author, Fahad replied that the poems were his. “Wow! They’re so good!” she said. Fahad smiles as he recalls the moment.

When Fahad finally proposed to her, it was through a poem. “At the end of the poem, I told her I would be so happy if you would agree to complete our lives together,” recalled Fahad, smiling even wider.

Books weave their way through many of the defining moments of Fahad’s life. To watch so many of them disappear was unimaginable. The library was more than a physical space and its antiquities to him. “A library makes a difference,” said Fahad, “because libraries have books, books have ideas, and ideas make change.”

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Hanif Kureishi: ‘I haven’t read anything by Jane Austen. My shame is big’

The book I am currently reading
The Age of Anger by Pankaj Mishra. He uses Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals to help understand why everyone is so pissed off these days. He has a good theory, the Nietzschean idea of resentment – the fury of people who are excluded – and uses this to talk about radical Islam and Brexit. You could also apply it to Trump.

The book that changed my life
James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. As a teenager from a mixed race background, I struggled with issues of race and identity and Baldwin had related all this to the race politics of his day. It gave me ideas of what I might write.

The book I wish I’d written
Frederick Seidel’s collected poems – they always make me laugh and they always move me. As I get older I read more and more poetry.

The book that influenced my writing
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. When I was a teenager and read it in my bedroom in Bromley, I thought this was a book for now – leaving the inheritance of the postwar settlement and making a new world. It inspired me.

The book that is most underrated
I recently found a wonderful book by Georges Simenon in a secondhand bookshop. It’s called The Train, and is about a man cut off from his family in Belgium at the outbreak of the war who begins a relationship with a woman he meets on a train. It’s about the fracturing of war and the possibility of love. Because of Maigret, people write Simenon off as a formulaic writer. To me he’s as good as Camus.

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A crash course in diversifying your bookshelf

Is your reading list looking a little monochrome? We’ve compiled 15 books to help you broaden your horizons

In the past year, I’ve made a conscious and intentional effort to read in an inclusive and representative way. For me this means reading perspectives that differ from mine, about experiences that are new to me, and learning from people who have lived in ways that offer precious teachings. It also means reading nonfiction and fiction in equal measure. Consuming the news and nonfiction about important but heavy topics can be emotionally draining; whereas poetry and comics can uplift us when we feel weltshmerz or despair.

This is why I’ve put together a list of books by writers, poets, and artists from a range of backgrounds. When read in the order presented, it creates a narrative arc of its own. The list builds from a slow crescendo of more accessible books to heavy-hitters that draw on academic and historical research, finishing with a few books that unearth the kinds of futures we want to create.

These titles will humble you and fill you with wonder. But most important, they will hopefully also inspire you to create your own stories in ways that are most representative of your experiences.

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Salman Rushdie: ‘I couldn’t finish Middlemarch. I know, I know. I’ll try again’

The author on meeting Pynchon, why Kafka is unbeatable – and the trouble with Trollope

The book I am currently reading
I recently visited the old mansion where Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks was set, that great house with the words “Dominus providebit” inscribed over the front door, and was immediately inspired to download the novel on to my iPad and plunge in. The pleasure of re-reading Buddenbrooks was so deep that I resolved to embark on a year of re-readings, which is why I now find myself about halfway through the first book of Don Quixote, in the terrific Edith Grossman translation. This is proving to be a more complicated encounter. On the one hand, the characters of Quixote and Sancho Panza are as beautifully realised as I remember them, and the idea of a man determinedly seeing the world according to his own vision, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, feels strikingly contemporary. On the other hand, how many more times are the Knight of the Dolorous Countenance and Sancho going to get beaten up and left in pain in various roadside ditches? The “greatest novel ever written” – I voted for it myself once – turns out to be just a little bit repetitive. To make the reading easier, I’m breaking it up and reading other books by other authors after every couple of hundred pages of Cervantes. At present, that interposed book is David Grossman’s wonderful A Horse Walks into a Bar.

The book that changed my life
Truthfully, the books that changed my life were books I wrote myself, not books I read. When Midnight’s Children was published in 1981 I was hoping that a few people who were not friends or relations of mine might read and like it. I was completely unprepared for what happened. It gave me the life I had always wanted, a writer’s life, and for most of the 1980s I lived that life with real gratitude and happiness. Then in 1988 another book changed my life in another way. But in spite of everything that followed the publication of The Satanic VersesI remain proud of it. And strangely I’m grateful for it, too. Its troubled pathway has taught me a lot about how to live, and what to live for.

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Turkish garbage collectors open library full of discarded books

Turkish garbage collectors in the country’s capital city of Ankara have opened a public library that is full of books that were originally destined to be put into landfill. The workers began collecting discarded books and opened the new library in the Çankaya district of Ankara. News of the library has spread and now people have begun donating books directly to the library, rather than throwing them away.

As CNN reports, the library was originally created for the use of the employees friends and family but, as it grew in size, the library was officially opened to the public in September of last year. “We started to discuss the idea of creating a library from these books. And when everyone supported it, this project happened,” said Çankaya Mayor Alper Tasdelen, whose local government spearheaded the opening of the library.

The library now has over 6,000 fiction and non-fiction books and includes a children’s section, an area dedicated to scientific research books, and a number of English and French language books for those who are bilingual.


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11 Books and their 11 spectacular trees

From Italo Calvino’s Oaks to Arundhati Roy’s Mangosteens, trees have been the stuff of inspiration for as long as we’ve told stories

The year after I graduated college, I was broke. Hungry broke. So broke that I didn’t need to set an alarm clock, because my growling stomach would wake me up every morning at seven. I was living in the last house at the dead-end of a dirt road at the top of a mountain in southern Vermont, surrounded by forest, and every morning I’d get up, pour myself a small bowl of Cheerios, and read. And look at the trees. And then read some more.

That fall, I put cereal on the table by working as a woodcutter. For ten dollars an hour, I’d swing a maul, over and again, splitting piles of firewood for the winter — oak, hickory, birch, ash, locust, beech — and then I’d go home to my books. I read most of Shakespeare’s plays that year, and Goethe’s Faust, and Nietzsche’s collected works. I dove into Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson, and I read and reread Invisible Man. It was the year I discovered Rebecca Solnit and reacquainted myself with Willa Cather. When I got paid, I’d go to the used bookstore, pick up a few titles, and then return home to read and contemplate the trees.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that my own book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent (forthcoming in 2018), is about trees and what happened when certain nineteenth-century Americans, skeptical about the social and environmental costs of capitalist progress, looked out at them. I spent ten years reading everything about trees and culture that I could; yet what I read is only a fraction of what’s out there — even in English. It seems that humans have never tired of writing about the sylvan world.

Here are a few of those books, and a handful of the trees I discovered, a highly idiosyncratic list, that have helped to define my life. Maybe some of them will guide you through your inner forest.

Tree: Wolf Willow
Book: Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier, by Wallace Stegner

Stegner moved frequently as a child, but he spent his boyhood in southern Sasketchewan on what was the last North American frontier. His book begins when the middle-aged Stegner returns, for the first time, to his hometown, only to find it utterly strange, until he crushes a few leaves of the scrubby, silver-leafed wolf willow, and brings it to his nose. What ensues is a Proustian remembrance that blends fiction, lightly fictionalized memoir, history, and philosophy of history — “a librarian’s nightmare,” Stegner called it — every page of which is bewitching.

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12 Indonesian books you should add to your reading list

Before Dawn: The Poetry of Sapardi Djoko Damono ( 2005 )

Author: Sapardi Djoko Damono

Translated by John H. McGlynn, this book contains poetry written by Sapardi Djoko Damono, one of Indonesia’s most renowned poets. It contains 30 more poems than Before Dawn – Suddenly the Night, which was released in 1987.

Some of the most popular poems in the 2005’s book are Rain of June and I Want, with the latter being commonly quoted by and even put to music by fans.

Man Tiger (Lelaki Harimau) ( 2004 )

Author: Eka Kurniawan

The book, which recently named a nominee for the prestigious Man Booker International Prize, follows Margio, a youngster from a rural area in Indonesia, who decides to kill a man. This leaves the whole village confused as Margio doesn’t seem like a person who could actually harm anyone. The worst crime he has ever committed is stealing a chicken, which was regarded as something that “happened out of spite”.

But, Margio really did kill the man, moreover in a brutal way. When asked why he did it, he answered, “It wasn’t me. There’s a tiger in me”.

The Land of Five Towers (Negeri 5 Menara) ( 2009 )

Author: Fuadi

Alif was a country boy from Maninjau in Padang, West Sumatra. Even though he dreamed to be another BJ Habibie, the country’s former president, circumstances led him to enroll at Pondok Madani, an Islamic boarding school in East Java.

Although disappointed at first, he learns the words man jadda wa jadda during his time there, which translates into “He who works hard must be successful” in Arabic, and later finds his life changed because of it.

Winter Dreams ( 2011 )

Author: Maggie Tiojakin

Nicky F. Rompa went to Boston, Massachusetts, to have a new life. During his stay, his new family, lover and his boss—apparently everyone around him—teaches him new lessons about living in a multicultural society.

Not only does he have to learn more about himself through it, he also embarks on a journey that will last throughout his life.

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Contemporary Nepali literature: Fiction — the short story

Nepali short story has achieved its present state of development in shorter time than other genres. This area of literature has already been enriched by a number of classic world-class short stories. The contribution of the figures such as Guru Prasad Mainali, Pushkar Samser Rana, Posan Pande, Indra Bahadur Rai, Biseswor Prasad Koirala, Bhimnidhi Tiwari, Bhawani Bhikshu, Paarizaat can hardly be exaggerated. The short story writers like Ramesh Bikal, Parashu Pradhan, Sanat Regmi, Dhruba Sapkota, Shailendra Sakar, Nayan Raj Pandey, Benju Sharma, Sita Pandey and their peers are those well esteemed writers who join the past with the present. These writers have written stories of artistic intent with themes related to Nepal and Nepali’s cultural life and have made short stories even popular among Nepali people.

In the ’60s Nepali stories saw a change in their characterization and tone. It was the most influential movement Teshro Aayam (The Third Dimension) that has its impact on short stories too. Indra Bahadur Rai, one of the trios to launch the movement is a very innovative short story writer. Although the Third Dimension triggered an intellectual debate in literary circles and provided a stimulus to Nepali literature, it could not produce a generation to follow it. So its impact gradually wore off. Indra Bahadur Rai has come up with Leela Lekhan (Leela Writing). It’s a literary theory to approach literary works and a philosophy in itself. His Kathputaliko Man (The Heart of a Puppet) is the first collection of short stories based on Leela Lekhan. Some writers are putting it into their works successfully.

Realism has been the sustained base of Nepali short stories from the past to the present. Other trends include progressive ideology, psychological realism and experimentalism. Leela lekhan and other post modernist experiments operative in the latest decade seem to shake realism. Writers are breaking away from the established norms and values and are seeking to explore new heights and new horizons. This group of writers has been providing Nepali readers with thoroughly new texts. Village life, life in Kathmandu and Darjeeling, the lives of women in a male-dominated society, caste, class, and ethnic relations, the Gurkha soldier, poverty, corruption and most recently the impact of technological development on life have been the recurring themes of Nepali short stories.

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In the age of litfests, this model of intimate literary exchange is a vastly different experience

Since 2008, the Almost Island Dialogues have offered a literary gathering that offers what expansive literary festivals cannot – intimacy and a meaningful exchange of ideas through the lens of literature. At this year’s conclave in New Delhi (December 15-17), they will celebrate a decade of the Dialogues, with writers like the Chinese poet Bei Dao, the Arabic poet Mohammed Bennis, the Argentinian novelist Sergio Chejfec, and, from India, Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Allan Sealy, and Joy Goswami. Almost Island also publishes an online literary magazine as well as a small number of books. Sharmistha Mohanty, founder-editor of Almost Island, spoke to Scroll.in. Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that keeping the Dialogues small and intimate is important to you. What would you say intimacy achieves in the literary space?
It is very difficult to have any meaningful discussion in a setting where there are hundreds of people and writers must speak as part of a panel for ten minutes on a very deep subject. This is what the big litfests have done.

Unlike a literary festival, which concentrates on a product, be it a book or a reading or a performance, Almost Island is concerned with process, with how things are learnt, explored, created, and created again. It is concerned with the unravelling of things, in a stretched time, in being within the labour of literature, and not in the end product of its presentation. Literature is not a performing art and it requires a certain degree of quietness and closeness for things to unfold, for writers to speak genuinely and slowly about their work and their lives. Intimacy and small gatherings allow that. I have seen it work repeatedly at our Dialogues. In our India-China dialogues our Chinese writer friends spoke with candour about everything – a father who commits suicide because he is pursued by the Party, how and why some of them were exiled – because trust could be established in the closeness of our meetings.

The great Hungarian writer Laszlo Krasznahorkai spoke to us for over three hours about his life in Communist Hungary and how his novels emerged from his life in that context. He spoke about his work with the community in a small town and how the government retaliated by burning his library of thousands of books, a library he has never been able to rebuild. What he gave us was not a talk or a lecture – he was speaking to all of us who were there as if one to one. It was a very moving experience for all of us there.

The Dialogues complete a decade this year. How would you say they have evolved over the last ten years?
I would say that there has been a kind of lateral growth, a fullness that has been achieved with these meetings. Not a linear evolution. The fullness is in the wide register of voices we’ve had, in poetry and prose, and from many different parts of the world. What connects them is that they enlarge – through the innovativeness of their work – the spaces of prose and poetry. The wide register is rigorous and not merely there for the sake of diversity.

That said, I have been thinking of new ways to have these meetings. There may be other ways that I haven’t discovered yet. Ten years is a good watershed and I intend to give some time to thinking about that in the next year.

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