Desert Island Books Interview, with Jeff J. Brown, author of 44 Days Backpacking in China

Will I ever get there? (image by

The owner/editor of a popular weekly magazine in Beijing challenged Jeff J. Brown, author of 44 Days Backpacking in China to answer personal questions about books and what literature, writers and genres mean to him. Some of his answers are quite surprising and revealing, and go all the way back to his childhood and adolescence. Here it is:

1. Whose bookshelf in Beijing would you most like to peek at?

Xi Jinping’s (and Li Keqiang’s). Xi is my age (60), was president of China at 59, thus becoming the youngest leader to be chosen for this world-powerful position. He is also from Beijing, a presidential first, as well as being a child of revolutionary royalty. I joked in a recent Reflections in Sinoland column that Obama, Bush, Cameron and Hollande would last about a Nanjing nanosecond trying to govern China, and it’s true. Xi and Li Keqiang are doing a remarkable job of governing nearly 20% of the Earth’s citizens, through the second generation of humankind’s largest and fastest economic and social evolution. The way Xi and Li understand and work the levers of statecraft, they must be very well read, especially in history, both deep and contemporary.

2. Who borrows the greatest number of your books? Who lends you the greatest number of books?

My wife and I used to have a sizeable, multilingual print book collection. When we paid out of our own pocket to move it from China to France in 1997, we calculated the cost and it was ridiculously expensive. Thus, before our move to the US from France in 2001, we sold off and donated most of the collection. When we moved back to China in 2010 from the US, we reduced our lives down to two suitcases each, and that meant no more books. Now, when I run across a book and read it, I often pass it on to a friend or colleague. They reciprocate. When we leave China one day, we will undoubtedly give away what books we have bought and collected.

3. Are you mostly reading paper or have you transitioned to an electronic reader?

I am becoming a rapid convert to ebooks, due to the aforementioned reality. I use my Galaxy Tab as an ereader. Furthermore, trying to buy genuine ebooks in China is very difficult. Kindle, iTunes and Nook have absurd territorial restrictions and I can’t buy their ebooks here, not even my own. I won’t let them restrain my ceaseless desire to learn and gain knowledge of the world around me, past, present and future. Thus, due to their rigidity, they have pushed me into using torrents and buying ebooks off Taobao for ¥5 (€0.60/$0.80) each. And I’m an author! This is one of the main reasons I developed my own website, so that my books can be bought worldwide, ebook or print, China included.

4. If you recommend only one book about China, which one would it be?

For a scholarly reference work, The Search for Modern China, by Jonathan Spence, is hard to beat. It covers this amazing country starting with the Ming Dynasty to modern times. I’m also going to toot my own horn: 44 Days is being described by readers as a funny and entertaining way to get an honorary degree in Chinese Studies and that it ought to be taught in social science classes. This validates the many hundreds of hours of research I put into writing it, which is gratifying.

5. What book do you pretend to have read, but haven’t really?

As a teacher, I talk and teach a lot about writers, where I only have limited knowledge of their work. For example, I have not read nearly the complete works of Michel Montaigne and Shakespeare. They represent a lot of pages. But, I’ve read enough of them to be dangerous and teach about them with a fiery passion.

6. What book are you saving for old age?

I don’t really have one. I’m a bit of a peripatetic, pinball reader, bouncing from one subject, author, genre or language to the next, depending on my life experiences and interests at the time. Someone will recommend a book out of the blue, it sounds interesting and I’ll pick it up. Another observation I’ve discovered: in my later years, am I going to reread books that once enflamed my soul? No, because I’ve already tried. Like Thomas Wolfe’s expat lament, You Can’t Go Home Again, the same is true for literature. I was in awe of Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. It had a huge impact on my notions of great literature and writing. But years later, I read it again and it was just not the same. This happened with several other fave books. So, I’ve learned that great literature is like a passionate serial lover, going from one life changing and heart throbbing romance to another, never to look back, never to regret.

7. Which book do you wish you had written?

In fiction, Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s only sold 200 million or so copies over the years and deservedly so: 1,500 pages of adventure, romance and edge of your seat action, with unbelievable arcs of character development and descriptive writing. I read it in French, but it’s rock’em sock’em in any language. In nonfiction, it would have to be Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man. No two books have done more to revolutionize our understanding of the Universe, while dragging Homo sapiens, kicking and screaming into the modern era of science and holistic understanding.

8. What book changed your life?

My parents got a divorce when I was in middle school and it was a very divisive one at that, which is devastating for the children. Looking for answers as to what happened, I gleaned my father’s library, which he left behind. Over about a year and half, while I was going through catechism at church, I feasted on four collected works: Bertrand Russell, Friedrich Nietzsche, John Stuart Mill and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I was young and only understood about half of what I was reading, but it was enough to totally transform my spirituality. After reading these four books, I’ll never forget the day I taped a letter to the church’s front door, declaring that I was forevermore an atheist. I did not find out until years later why my parents’ marriage disintegrated (which inspired my TED talk this year). But, thanks to that literary crucible, where my youthful, impressionable mind was melded, I will always be a deeply spiritual and devout atheist, in the Feynman-Foucault school of philosophy.

9. What is your favorite book from childhood?

I had a phonebook-thick collection of abridged novels, replete with classic, woodcut illustrations, when I was in elementary school: Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Carroll, Jonathan Swift, Washington Irving, Rudyard Kipling and the like. I bet I reread that tome a hundred times as I grew up. I didn’t keep much in the way of personal belongings when we came back to China in 2010. But that book, emblazoned with my scrawled, childhood signature in the front, is sitting in a relative’s garage back in Oklahoma. I hope to give it to my first grandchild, if that ever happens.

10. If you could meet one character from literature or history, fictional or actual, who would it be and why?

Given his importance to the history of the human race, it would have to be Charles Darwin: world voyager and adventurer, travel and science writer, renaissance and family man, master theorist and tireless researcher, deep and reflective thinker, all the while being a gentle and loving soul. Astrophysicist Neil Tyson de Grasse, who is deservedly very proud of his field of study, said he would have to rank Darwin above Newton and Einstein – because he is that important to our understanding of all creation.

11. OK, which is it that floats your boat: fiction or nonfiction?

Over my entire life, I have read more fiction than nonfiction. But, living in China 1990-97 caused a tectonic shift in my priorities. My thirst for knowledge about China and its peoples ineluctably drew me to (auto-) biographies, history and political science books. I especially found (auto-) biographies to be great vehicles to learn about entire time periods, with all the human drama included. Not much has changed since then. I still read English and French fiction, but not nearly as much as before.

12. Spill the beans: other than all the authors, books and genres you mentioned so far, who and which books influenced you the most in writing 44 Days?

In 44 Days’ prologue, I mention several writers who gave me ideas and inspiration to write my first book. Little did I know when starting out that it would be and still is the hardest project, personal or professional, that I’ve ever undertaken. The books I credit in the prologue are: Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond; The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter; Martin Jacques’ When China Rules the World; Ma Jian’s Red Dust; Chinese Lessons, by John Pomfret, The Tyranny of Good Intensions, by Paul Craig Roberts and Lawrence Stratton, and then I translated from French into English Tibet, the Last Cry, by Eric Meyer and Laurent Zylberman.

All of the aforementioned books show great research and I took this to heart with 44 Days, spending over a year writing, rewriting and researching every fact, detail and place I visited.

Jared Diamond’s and Joseph Tainter’s books paint a very convincing portrait of human civilization, going back to the very first ones in Mesopotamia, China, Egypt, Mesoamerica and India, up to the present.

Martin Jacque’s book help give me the confidence to write about the vast panoply of China, both past and present, and then to make predictions about where I think the Middle Kingdom is heading, vis-à-vis the rest of the world.

Ma Jian’s amazing 3-year journey around his motherland, right after the death of Mao Zedong, with his caustic and frank political and social analysis, gave me the idea of doing the same thing, but as a foreigner observing China and putting this country into perspective with the West.

I really liked the way John Pomfret portrayed his real life characters, and how he juxtaposed their arc of development alongside his, over the years, Chinese and American. It made for a very compelling story. I also deeply appreciated what must have been a huge amount of meticulous field work and recordkeeping.

Paul Craig Roberts’ and Lawrence Stratton’s book opened my eyes about how much the United States has changed since I left to live overseas in 1980, and that I needed to be less mythical and assuming about all the propaganda I grew up with as a child and young adult in Oklahoma: I had to write about the real America, if I was going to truly understand how China fits in the world picture.

Eric Meyer’s and Laurent Zylberman’s book taught me the importance of synthesizing good writing with good photography, and as a result, 44 Days includes about 125 pictures from my journey.

I should also include Alexis de Tocqueville and his 1835 masterpiece Democracy in America. It set the standard for traveling social studies and is largely credited with making this form of science legitimate. I read this book in college and it has had a big impact on me ever since, with Tocqueville’s penetrating observations and quick on his feet analysis of the vast country he was visiting and the incredible people he encountered. He pulled no punches and his brutally honest interpretations of Americans and their society are still spot on, almost 200 years later.

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