Country Driving

Everyone’s reading and writing about China these days, and the best book I’ve read on the subject is Peter Hessler’s Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory.

This is really three short books, one about driving the route of the Great Wall, one about life in a rapidly changing small town vaguely in the vicinity of Beijing, and one about a sweatshop boomtown. In an ideal world, there’d be a publication medium for novella-length nonfiction. But the second-best alternative would be for every writer with one great novella-length nonfiction book in him to do what Hessler did and turn out to have three such books, write them all in a row, and slap ’em together. Hessler’s a New Yorker writer and it shows in the incredibly quality of the prose, the narrative structure, and the storytelling power. This is interesting, readable material. I laughed out loud. I felt suspense. I won’t say I cried, but the term “heartbreaking” comes to mind at several points. Even better, Hessler’s lived in China for a long time and speaks Chinese quite well so he can really operate like a proper reporter and not need to see things through a screen of mistranslation and interpretation.

But best of all from the point of view of this cold-hearted rationalist, is that while this is a book of reportage rather than analysis, there is real anecdotal punch here. I feel like you really do learn something about the small-scale foundations of China’s economic transformation and you get a sense of where the limits might be. Recommended without preconditions, even if you’re not particularly interested in the subject but just looking for a good read.