Reading while traveling

This is the latest edition (mailed out June 29) of my occasional e-mail newsletter, which you can subscribe to right here:

Hello, readers!

You travel to see and experience new things, and meet new people. But also to read a lot, right?

Reading is something to do while you’re in transit, when you’re wide-awake from jet lag at 2 a.m., and when you’re worn out from all that seeing and experiencing and meeting and need a break. It’s also a way to learn about the places you’re visiting. And if you’re someplace where the internet doesn’t work very well, and you’ve already downloaded a bunch of books on your Kindle or iPad, it’s something to do when you can’t get online.

So, yeah, I’m in China at the moment, and I’ve been reading a lot.

I left San Francisco last Wednesday morning and arrived in Beijing Thursday afternoon. About half of the difference was time zones, but that still left lots of hours in the air. I had meant to spend a bunch of that time writing a column, but the wifi on the plane wasn’t working and I didn’t have a plan for a column that wouldn’t require research and hyperlinks. Because I had committed to getting some work done, watching movies felt like cheating. So I read.

First I went through the big pile of newspapers I had collected in the United lounge at SFO (FT, NYT, WSJ, San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury-News). Then I started in on one of the books about China that I had downloaded onto my iPad: Michael Schuman’s Confucius and the World He Created.

Michael and I worked together at Time, although he was in Hong Kong and I was in New York and we only met once. Now he too writes for Bloomberg View, amongother places, and lives in Beijing with his wife, CNBC reporter Eunice Yoon. I was planning to have dinner with them Friday night, and figured it would be good form to have read his book first. As it turns out, dinner got moved up to Thursday night and I had to report to Michael that I was only 71% done, according to Kindle. But the remaining 29% included many pages of footnotes, so I was closer than I thought.

It was totally worth the effort — the book is an entertaining tale that gave me a much better sense than I had before of the constants in Chinese civilization over the past two millennia. Continuity is also a major theme of Tim Clissold’s Chinese Rules: Mao’s Dog, Deng’s Cat, and Five Timeless Lessons from the Front Lines in China, which was the ebook I moved onto after Schuman’s. I had wanted to download Clissold’s memoir of his early days in the country, Mr. China, which my Beijing-based friend Mina Guli had recommended, but that wasn’t available in electronic form. So I bought Chinese Rules instead, and discovered at the end of the first chapter that Mina — Clissold’s former business partner — was a major character in the book.

The two of them had spent several years, starting in 2005, helping Chinese companies get carbon credits under the United Nations’ Clean Development Mechanism. Clissold tells that story quite entertainingly, and deftly weaves in a lot of Chinese history. The five “Chinese rules” come across as awkward add-ons intended to package the book as management advice, but the rest is so good that it really doesn’t matter.

After I finished Clissold’s book I started in on Jonathan Spence’s Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi, which assembles the scattered writings of the great 17th and 18th century Qing-dynasty ruler into something like an autobiography. I’ve started sleeping through the night and haven’t been on any more airplanes, so I haven’t gotten all that far into it yet. But this passage seemed worth sharing:

Usually, north of the Wall, we drink river water all the time, and it’s not harmful; but in summer one has to be careful of mountain streams if no rain has fallen for some time to wash away the impurities, just as one has to watch out for dysentery if the springs have been stirred up by rain. While on the march it’s dangerous to drink from the ditches at the roadside—they can give you cholera. If there’s no decent water to be found, you must just distill what there is, and make tea with it.

This was more than a century before John Snow figured out that a contaminated well in London was the source of a cholera epidemic and that boiling water was a good idea. The Chinese knew some stuff that Europeans didn’t.

Maybe they still do. Another book that I’ve been reading in actual paper is The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy by Daniel A. Bell, a Canadian political theorist who teaches at Tsinghua University in Beijing. In this age of Brexit and of Trump, that sounds like a pretty timely topic, so I’ll be meeting with him tomorrow. Expect a column, or two, out of that.

So far the columns I’ve written here have been on Brexit and the experts and on theGreat Firewall. Before I came to China I wrote about the inevitable weaknesses of corporate boards, the meaning of affluence, the non-zero-sum side of Uber,PreCheck and graphene, among other things.

I’m in China (including Hong Kong) for another week and a half. And I’m hoping I can finish another book or two while I’m here.

Till next time,

Justin

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