There is no electronic substitute that can be brought on a bus in China, or a train in India, or in the bathtub of an Irish B&B, and it certainly won’t fit in your fannypack, double as a doorstop, or be worthy of trading in Dali or Hay-on-Wye.

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By David G. Allan

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in September 2002 on the website TheDharmaBums.com. David’s CNN.com column, The Wisdom Project, can be subscribed to here: https://tinyletter.com/wisdomproject

HAY-ON-WYE, Wales — I have read the obituaries of the printed word. Cause of death: Technology. And I’m here, in the self-touted “Town of Books,” to announce that news of computers slowly defeating bound volumes, is greatly exaggerated.

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In 1961, used book luminary Richard Booth, opened an antiquarian bookshop here in this lovely and quaint Welsh hamlet and set about making the entire town a mecca for book lovers. Today his shop, Booth’s, is the largest second-hand bookshop in the world, and the small town boasts more than 30 bookstores alone. You’d think, in this age of omnipresent internet access, digital books, and even books-on-tape, that Hay-on-Wye would be a ghost town, a footnote in the annals of a pre-digital age, or perhaps just a fading Brigadoon for the last remaining literate Luddites. But the truth is much more reassuring to those who worry they’ll be explaining what a jacket cover once was to their grandchildren. Hay-on-Wye is full of tourists and locals alike, holding volumes in their hands, ducking in and out of bookstores, looking for their next read, hoping for a rare find, or simply enjoying the mass gathering of all these books and book lovers.

I picked up several volumes and even traded a few paperbacks I had finished and wanted to unload from my heavy backpack. One made for a sad parting because it was the reward of hard bargaining, done on the other side of the world in a small Chinese town where books are the most precious commodity going.

I spent a week in Dali, a beautiful town at the foot of the Cangshan mountain range, in the Yunnan province of China, a day’s drive from the border of Tibet. Carrying everything I owned on my back I had to be frighteningly frugal about the books I brought along. I had with me a copy of the Tao Te Ching and Salon.com’s Wanderlust and was close to finishing both. I was far from any city with an English bookstore and was facing a four-hour bus trip to Lijiang empty-handed. Panic time.

But Dali, I soon discovered, is full of English-language books. Nearly every café has at least one shelf of them. So I set one afternoon aside to have lunch at a place where I could peruse the selection and pick a winner. My literary adventure began at Mr. He’s Culture Exchange Café, which Lonely Planet touted as having food and a colorful owner eager to promote the book he has written about his life. Two big shelves graced the small café and the place was empty, so I sat down and waited impatiently to order and begin my book search. Mr. He, a cheerless old man and self-proclaimed wise man of the town, came in from the kitchen and handed me a menu. He spoke slowly and with profundity.

“I am afraid we are not serving food at this establishment,” he said, handing me a menu that was full of food items. “Today we have only tea.” He opened my menu to a page of teas. “And we have only these two teas,” he said while pointing to their numbers in the menu. “On this piece of paper please write down the number of the item you wish to have,” and he handed me a pad and pencil and walked away. He and I were the only people in the cafe. I was hungry and considered leaving, but I was desperate for his books so I wrote down “#18” tea and went to the shelves where I narrowed several choices down to Kipling’s Just So Stories.

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I told Mr. He I wanted to pay for my tea and purchase the book. “The only book I have for sale,” he said slowly and pointing to a book with a younger Mr. He on the cover, “is the book I have written. All other books must be traded. Two books for one book.” I told him I had no books to trade because the one book I had I was saving for my girlfriend to read. He shook his head and thought for a moment. “I can see you really want this book. I think I will let you buy it from me.” “How much?” I asked. He paused thoughtfully and said, “I think you should walk around Dali and see how much books are worth here and tell me your price. Come back tomorrow and we will discuss,” he said definitively. “Two words: Fair and Reasonable,” he added, and with that put Kipling behind the counter and went back to the kitchen.

A little confused and still hungry I crossed the street to Jack’s Cafe for a filling lunch of fried tofu in spicy sauce and delicious and thick homemade brown bread. After ordering, I surveyed the books, which were locked in a glass case. There, in the bottom right corner, nearly obscured by a tattered volume of Mark Twain, was a book I really wanted, Swimming to Cambodia: The Collected Works of Spalding Gray. I had seen the Jonathan Demme film of the brilliant monologue about Gray’s experience in Thailand while filming The Killing Fields. I had just been living in Thailand, and I’ve seen Gray perform live and am a great admirer. I didn’t even know the monologue was published. That was the book, had to have it, no question.

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After I ate, I went to the waitress and asked to buy it. She said to come back at dinner and speak to the owner and he might trade it to me. I told her I didn’t have a book to trade and she looked at me blankly. In an attempt to induce sympathy I lied and told her my books had been stolen in Beijing. She was immediately concerned, “Who stole your books? Did a Chinese person steal your books?” Her alarm didn’t subside until I added another lie and assured her that my invented thief had been another backpacker. To this she nodded in understanding. “I think you should go to the bookstore and buy a book and perhaps the owner will take a new book if you don’t have two books to trade.” I thanked her and followed her directions to the bookstore.

Half an hour later, I found the bookstore. All the books appeared to be in Chinese. I asked at the counter if they had English books and the cashier pointed in a vague direction. I eventually found the shelf. About 10 books, all with Chinese/English covers, some volumes so small they were stapled together without a binding. I bought a copy of Thomas Moore’s Utopia, the best of the bunch and the one I wouldn’t mind being stuck with if the owner of Jack’s wouldn’t trade.

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That night I went back to the restaurant and asked for the owner. He looked about 19 years old and was taking orders in between mixing the music turntables in the back of the dining room. I told him I was there to trade books, and he eyed me suspiciously. “What book?” I took him to the cabinet and he unlocked the case and studied the picture of Spalding Gray on the cover. I was so excited, I wanted snatch it out of his hands. I can’t recall ever being that thrilled or nervous about a book purchase.

“And where are the books you want to exchange?” he asked. I produced Utopia reverently, as if it was a wondrous thing I had brought him, worthy of this negotiation. He held it in his hand and frowned. Thinking the deal was about to go sour I began the hard sell. “This is a great book! And look, the cover is also in Chinese!” This made him angry. “No one wants this book,” he said, shaking my book. “No one wants a Chinese book. People only want English books!” “Oh, but it is in English,” I blurted, and opened it up to show that the chapters were all in English. “See? English.” But he was unhappy and repeated that no one wants such a book. He looked back and forth from Spalding to Moore, and I thought that was it. I had failed.

“Where did you get this book?” he asked me. “I bought it new, at the bookstore in town,” I said, and smartly added, “And this was the best book they had, because they don’t have as many English books as you do.” He smiled at the compliment. “My books are much better than the bookstore’s,” he proclaimed. I agreed with him and while he was still pleased with himself I asked if he would take Utopia but also let me give him money for Swimming to Cambodia. Long pause. “I can see you really want this book,” he said. “Yes, I really do.” “Then I cannot deny it to you,” he proclaimed. And with that I paid, thanked him several times and bowed, forgetting that the Chinese don’t bow like the Thais and walked out victorious, my reward tucked under my arm, and a buzz going through me. Never had I worked so hard for a book.

At first I couldn’t understand what the big deal was and why they wouldn’t just sell me the books. Why do they care so much when they aren’t even making a profit? What is it about this Chinese town on the backpacker circuit that has made it so literary?

A week later my girlfriend and I went back through Dali after Lijiang. She had a copy of Waiting by Ha Jin and I still had the Tao Te Ching and a camping book that we hoped to use toward a trade at one of the cafés. We picked a restaurant that had a small shelf of books, including Angela’s Ashes. After dinner we had a long talk with the owner about the restaurant and her travels. She was very friendly. And then we asked about trading for her copy of Angela’s Ashes and the banter ended. She didn’t want to part with the book, even for the award-winning Waiting, which is, ironically, about the Cultural Revolution in China, and she had no interest in the Tao. “You see,” she explained, “many customers have told me they like Angela’s Ashes and they come here to read it.” We finally understood. Desperate backpacker types in perpetual search of decent reading on the road will actually decide to eat in one place over another based on the quality of the reading material, just as I had done. For Angela’s Ashes she bargained us out of the camping book and Waiting, and I gave her the Tao Te Ching just so I could stop carrying it.

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As long as there are rucksack gypsies like ourselves traipsing the earth, the written word remains. When the technology reporters write their prognosticating pieces on the future of the electronic book, they usually pick the beach as the litmus test location for vacation reading. Forget the beach. There is no electronic substitute that can be brought on a bus in China, or a train in India, or in the bathtub of an Irish B&B, and it certainly won’t fit in your fannypack, double as a doorstop, or be worthy of trading in Dali or Hay-on-Wye.

* litera scripta manet (Latin for “the written word remains”)

CNN’s Editorial Director of Features (Travel, Style, Wellness, Science), plus The Wisdom Project column. This account represents my personal views, not CNN’s.

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