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Desert Island: My Ideal Bookshelf (Li Wen)
by Li Wen

IMG 2727

The earliest books I read in English were Mr. Men and Little Miss.* It was December 1992, and I had just moved from Shanghai to Sydney to live with my father. My command of English was basic; I had not yet started primary school. Every trip to the supermarket, I would pick up a couple of these plainly illustrated children's books at check-out (a dollar each), then cajole dad to read them aloud to me when we got home. Within a year, I'd graduated to Enid Blyton and C.S. Lewis; they were my window into how this Anglo society I was now living in functioned, my first measuring stick for the known world. I retain, to this day, a fondness for proper afternoon teas and sardines on toast.

Books are disarmingly like people**. Some are invaluable companions and guides. Others make you laugh, or feel less alone. Some books are charlatans, luring you in with false promises, only to try to fool you with lies and bad logic. Exposure to liars is useful, helping to develop reasoning and argumentation, but you don't want those liars near you for too long, even if they are popular. From those closest to you, you want to be moved. You want to be enlightened and challenged. You want to be surprised.

I went to an Anglican girls' school, where there was little room for history that wasn't the Reformation and the Tudor kings and queens, so the first time that I read The Lions of Al-Rassan, and learnt about Moorish Spain, it was like I had discovered a world that was previously unknown. Through the accounts of early 20th century European explorers who fell in love with Arabia (Freya Stark, Wilfred Thesiger), I too became smitten. I rebelled against Western-centric history and responded to my resentment over its brushing over of China by wanting to learn about the Others in their own words. Classical poetry - songs of the individual and the everyday - was one avenue.

Donna Quesada, Daoism (1/9)

I am not religious, or even remotely interested in mysticism in the conventional sense. The philosophical ideas of Daoism (or Taoism) came into my life when I was disillusioned with the binary thinking that characterised all the legal and political philosophy that I'd studied at university. All the while that my mind felt trapped and besieged, I was still thinking within a paradigm that didn't have the words to express my struggle, until I started to read Tao Te Ching and its commentaries. For a crash course on Daoism that doesn't reduce the philosophy to soft mysticism (as many comparative religion courses do in the West, I've discovered), I recommend Donna Quesada's lectures on the subject. Cybernetics (Gregory Bateson, Norbert Wiener) and systems theory (Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Varela and Maturana), interdisciplinary fields that constitute a post-Newtonian science, seemed to be logical progressions from that line of thought.

My interests are very broad, so I read from a lot of different subjects and genres. Romantic love and sex, and angst about the same, is a notable exception. It was in my late teens that I started to understand my own asexuality. Tom Ripley (as Highsmith wrote him, not as he was portrayed in the Minghella film), murderer and sociopath though he is, remains one of my literary heroes; the first character I came upon that I recognised, in sweet relief, that Yes, he is like me. Laurie R. King's heroine, in A Monstrous Regiment of Women, articulated another side of it: "For me, for always, the paramount organ of passion was the mind. Unnatural, unbalanced, perhaps, but it was true: Without intellect, there could be no love." My bookshelf is a microcosm of how I think and love.

Left: The Club Dumas, Arturo Perez-Reverte; The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas S. Kuhn; Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Gregory Bateson; The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith; The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli
Centre: Lucifer, Mike Carey and Peter Gross; The Beekeeper's Apprentice, Laurie R. King; The Lions of Al-Rassan, Guy Gavriel Kay; Collected Poems of C. P. Cavafy, translated by Daniel Mendelsohn; Spheres of Justice, Michael Walzer; Classical Chinese Poetry: An Anthology, translated by David Hinton
Right: Arabian Sands, Wilfred Thesiger; The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin; A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller Jr.; Tao Te Ching, translated by Stephen Addiss and Stanley Lombard; Poems of Arab Andalusia, translated by Cola Franzen; The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Edward Fitzgerald; The Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke

*This series is based on My Ideal Bookshelf, edited by Thessaly La Force and illustrated by Jane Mount.
**And books should be treated as such. While I stand vehemently against censorship in principle, I maintain that there is a vast gulf between "having the right to say something" and "saying something that is right".

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