Two Book Recommendations

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Earlier this week I wrote about Justin Yifu Lin's book on development economics, The Quest for Prosperity: How Developing Economies Can Take Off. Lin advances a hybrid approach to the issues--a middle way between the neoliberal emphasis on markets and prices and the structuralist emphasis on market failures and government intervention. He calls it "new structuralism". I'm not entirely in sympathy with his thinking, for reasons I explain in the article, but still I thought it was terrific--as I say, the most valuable book I read this year.

It had been on my reading list for my recent visit to China. I want to mention another book from that list--not as professionally relevant, as you might say, but a revelation in its own way and one I think any intelligent reader would love as much as I did. Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons in Life, Love, and Language by Deborah Fallows.

Deborah as you may know is James Fallows's wife, and the book is a kind of memoir of her time in China with Jim when they moved to live and work there for three years a little while back. Jim's own two recent books on China, Postcards from Tomorrow Square and China Airborne are excellent too, as you might expect--but Deborah's book is intriguingly different. She's a skilled linguist and set out to learn Mandarin. It was a struggle, as was getting comfortable with Chinese manners, culture and ways of looking at the world. The book is about how those two things--her understanding of what seemed a very strange language and her understaidng of what seemed a very strange culture--came together.

As I tried to learn to speak Mandarin, I also learned about how the language works--its words, its sounds, its grammar and its history. I often found a connection between some point of the language--a particular word or the use of a phrase, for example--and how that point could elucidate something very "Chinese" I would encounter in my everyday life in China. The language helped me understand what I saw on the streets or on our travels around the country--how people made their livings, their habits, their behavior toward each other, how they dealt with adversity, and how they celebrated.

The book is organized around a series of those connections and insights. Why the Chinese can strike Westerners as rude. Their reluctance to say "I love you". Their delight in word games...

"The Lion-Eating Poem in the Stone Den" is the story of a poet (shi) names Shi who loves to eat lions (shi shi), goes to the market (shi) to buy ten (shi) of them, takes them home to eat (shi) and discovers they are made (shi) of stone (shi).

The poem is 92 repetitions of the same syllable. (Chinese uses only about 400 syllables in in all, she explains, compared to 4,000 in English, so they have to multi-task.)

The book's as engaging a travel memoir as I can remember reading. I found it completely absorbing. And it was wonderful to have read it before my first visit to the country for quite some time, because it made many things intelligible that would otherwise have thrown me. Any armchair traveller will love it--and don't think of visiting China without reading it.

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