I mentioned this story in the past, but never wrote about it in detail – here goes.
I’ve been reading about the Silk Road for ages.
I started as a kid, with a much-edited and simplified version of Marco Polo’s Il Milione, and then with the Arabian Nights and then all the rest.
Journey to the West was another instigating read.
Then, one day, during a raid in a Turin bookstore, I chanced upon Luce Boulnois’ La Via della Seta, the Italian translation of a book called Silk Road: Monks, Warriors & Merchants. The book had actually been written in French, and published in 2001, as a summation of the research the author had carried out since 1963, and has been translated in a number of languages (nine, according to Wikipedia).
Boulnois was probably one of the top researchers on the subject of the history and culture of Silk Road, and the book is a classic. She was fluent in both Russian and Chinese, and she had traveled extensively, when she worked as a translator, in places often forbidden to Western scholars, collecting a wealth of information that she used as the basis for her studies.
But let me tell you about that Italian edition.
Calling it a cheap paperback would be the understatement of the year.
Printed on cheap, gray recycled paper, it has the absorbing power of a cartload of sponges: take it out at the bus stop on a foggy day, and the pages would curl and stick to each other, while the binding got cramped and skewed. Let it dry afterwards, and the book would become crispy and crackling, the pages turning with a distinctive sound of autumn leaves.
The cover – with the objectively beautiful Chinese painting – was a magnet for stains, fingerprints and wrinkles.
And the text, printed small on those quirky pages, was drab and cheerless.
In a way, it would be tempting to consider it so cheap and poor it is almost zen in its raw simplicity, but no – it was just a poor excuse for a paperback.
But boy what a book!
Boulnois, as I mentioned one of the foremost historians of the Silk Road, was able to evoke a lost world through snippets of historical fiction, followed by huge, detailed, absolutely fascinating chapters on every aspect of the ancient merchant routes of Asia and the traveler that gave them life.
I devoured that book, I went from cover to cover in something like one week, reading it mostly on the way to work and back, on buses and trams.
I was totally captured.
By the end of that week, the paperback was like something that had been through a war, like something that had been swallowed by the shark in Jaws, like it had been thrown under the bus, like a true relic from a long lost era, something found in a lost Tibetan outpost on the very edge of the Taklamakan desert..
I still have it here somewhere, in a box, for the sake of nostalgia – and because I owe a lot to this mongrel, cheap paperback.
About five years later I decided to re-read the thing, because it had made such an impression that, while I was going through a number of other historical essays on the Silk Road, I felt the urge to go back to that lost wonder.
But as I was at it, and considering at the time I had a paying job and money to spend on books, I decided to check out the English edition.
And boy what a book!
Because the English edition was – and is – published by a company in Hong Kong called Odyssey Books & Guides, a publisher specializing in – you guessed it – travel books and guides.
And if the text was there as I remembered, full of detail, and magic, and history, the volume was quite another story compared to my decrepit old paperback.
Printed on high-quality glossy paper, with a sturdy sewn binding that make it almost impossible to damage, the English version is filled with color illustrations, photographs, reproductions of ancient art, and maps…
It is the same book but it is not the same book. There is nothing gray and drab about this edition, that is colorful and vibrant instead. It’s infinitely more rich, and more deep – because you can see what Boulnois is talking about, you can trace the steps of the characters she describes on maps, see the same sights they saw, you see their clothes, their everyday tools.
For my money, the Odyssey edition of Luce Boulnois Silk Road: Monks, Warriors & Merchants is one of the best historical books I ever had the pleasure of reading – so much so that I am putting a link to Amazon for you to go and buy it because, really, you should.
The text is absolutely great – so great that even printed on z-grade paper that turned to pulp in humid air it was a magic read. With the extra of the high quality printing and binding, and the photographic contents, it is simply impossible to beat.
And yet… I still have a soft spot for that crippled, cheap paperback bought in a Turin bookstore that is no longer there, having been replaced by a GAP casual fashion outlet. True, it was a poor excuse for a paperback, but it started me on a journey on which I am still today.
You can’t judge a book by its cover. Or its cheap paper. Or its crippled binding.
I owe a lot to that mongrel paperback.