Welcome to Smugglivus 2012! Throughout this month, we will have daily guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2012, and looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2013.
Who: 2012 debut Fantasy author Max Gladstone
Recent Work: The excellent Three Parts Dead which Ana read and LOVED.
Let’s give a warm welcome to Max, folks!
The Right Book at the Right Moment
It’s an honor to be asked to host one day of this year’s Smugglivus. I’ve always admired book smuggling as passion and profession, and while my own career has taken me down a different path—
Wait, I’m sorry, but I’ve just been informed that I’m supposed to write about books, not about the smuggling thereof. And I had such good anecdotes to share about book smuggling! Well. One anecdote, anyway, sort of peripherally about book smuggling. It’s even a miraculous story, since, you know, ‘tis the season. Might as well tell it anyway, since we’re all here.
Once upon a time in China—Shanghai, for clarity’s sake—I lost my copy of the Lonely Planet’s China guidebook, also known as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Chinese Galaxy. Even for someone like me, a quite good Chinese speaker with a few years in-country, the Lonely Planet was essential for traveling, since at the time (2006-ish) few Chinese hostels, attractions, and transportation systems had much of a web presence, and even if they did, nobody had a smartphone. Unless you wanted to trust the kind of local guides who thrust themselves on tourists at the train station, you needed a solid book to negotiate the madness, and the Lonely Planet was the de facto official volume for the backpacking waiguo bums of the PRC. It gave you superpowers. Step off a train in a strange city, grab a cheap table in a Uighur restaurant, and by the time you’ve finished your delicious beef noodles, you’ll know enough to confront the city, if not the world.
And of course I’d lost my copy in some hostel somewhere. Easy enough to remedy, I thought. Shanghai’s an immense city, growing all the time. Tons of English bookshops. I knew I’d seen Lonely Planet guides for sale. So I hied myself to a bookshop, hunted through shelves, and found, lo, a shelf packed with those lovely blue Lonely Planet guides. Southeast Asia. Japan. India. Russia. The Philippines. Bulgaria. Wales. But no China.
In a vast dim-lit internet cafe cavern, I investigated. The hive-mind confirmed that, at the time, the Lonely Planet China guide was not offered for sale in mainland China, or at least not in Shanghai. Some speculated that the book offended mainland authorities, either by its treatment of Tibet, or by the fact that its map of the PRC didn’t include Taiwan. Whatever the reason, no books to be had. Perhaps a visiting friend could bring me a copy from abroad; in the meantime I had no idea what to do. I’d planned a few weeks of travel before school started again, and the book had been the keystone of my strategy.
Dejected, I logged out, squeezed past a WoW guild stabbing a demon to death, and waited in line behind a couple kids buying ramen and Red Bull before diving back into the games. I reached the front corner, and pulled out my wallet to pay the man, when I saw, there on the back shelf, a copy of the Lonely Planet China—more weatherbeaten than my lost edition, spine broken in five or six places, but no less the book for that. “Is that your book,” I asked, nonchalantly as possible, as I handed the attendant my money.
“Not mine,” he responded. “Someone left it here a few weeks ago.”
A few weeks. Abandoned, then. I felt bad for the fellow traveler, but their loss… “Is it possible,” I said, “that I could buy the book from you?”
He offered. I counteroffered. We danced back and forth, but I didn’t put up much of a fight, and in the end I left the bar two hundred kuai lighter and a superhero again.
Not quite smuggling, not quite miraculous either—but I had a book I couldn’t have bought anywhere else, and an illicit little thrill in my chest as I walked back to my hostel. And may that be a lesson to all of us this winter, dear readers: you never fully appreciate books (or most things in life) until you lose them, and it always pays to keep your eyes open. You never know when you’ll find the right book at the right moment.
Or something. I’m no good at morals.