The Bookshelf Problem

You really want to improve your Chinese, but for a while now have been feeling like you’re lacking something. You take a trip to the book store to browse its offerings in the “Chinese” section.

One particular title catches your eye. You’ve never seen it before. Leafing through it, you decide you like the layout, and some of the examples given. It has a lot of interesting content you could benefit from. A warm feeling comes over you; this is the book that you need to give your Chinese studies a boost! You quickly purchase the book and head home, your fresh new inspiration under your arm.

A week later, the book is sitting on your shelf. It’s been days since you picked it up. You’ve been busy. It’s really a good book, and you’ll definitely use it later.

As time goes by, you wonder why your progress in Chinese is so slow. You want it bad, and you’re dedicated. You can tell that much just by taking a look at your bookshelf. It’s chock-full of books on learning Chinese.


And therein lies the problem.

You’ve been putting time and effort into finding just the right books to learn Chinese rather than buckling down and just doing it. Rather than getting you significant progress, all the time and energy you’ve put into Chinese has gotten you a bookshelf full of books for learning Chinese… and not much else.

This is the bookshelf problem.

I’m intimately acquainted with the problem, and I have the bookshelf to prove it. I’m not ashamed I fell into it (there are far worse vices to be ensnared by), but I’ve had to put a brake on the “book-buying instead of studying” mentality. I really do have all the books I need.

I think the bookshelf problem isn’t exclusive to books, either. Have you ever found yourself on a wild goose chase to find “the perfect Chinese blog,” or “the best flashcard program” or “the “best Chinese TV show?” Worthwhile quests, to be sure, but it’s really easy to get caught up in the pursuit and forget what you were really after.

This doesn’t mean that there is some magic formula like:

Buy 1 textbook + 1 good dictionary + 1 grammar book

…and then never buy another book again!

Of course not. The occasional new acquisition can keep your studies fresh and boost your motivation.

I’m just saying that if the situation above sounds at all familiar, you might want to consider the bookshelf problem before buying that new bookshelf.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Dude, it’s the same for studying any subject, but I know what you’re talking about. Sometimes I’ll be thumbing through an attractive volume in a bookstore, then I’ll flip it over, gag at the price and think “why pay this money when I can learn from my girlfriend or my friends or colleagues or the internet or even the taxi driver for free?” A laowai teacher friend had this problem last year- she bought oodles of books, but in the end, she spent most of her time studying the Chinese flashcards she bought for 4 yuan.

  2. Sounds really familiar to me! I was just thinking about it the other day. I had already arrived at the same conclusion: all energy/time being spent on finding new but never getting completely through any one of them.
    Time to 学 instead!ehehhe

  3. owshawng Says: August 2, 2007 at 2:55 am

    I’m cleaning out my basement today and found a box of chinese books. Plus a few japanese ones too. Need to just focus on one text, talking with my wife, movies, and maybe a 1 or 2 supplemental books to keep things fresh. Otherwise I’ll have too many choices.

    Need to go go back to putting in 30 minutes or so 5 times a week. Was making pretty good progress. then took a week off, which has now grown into 2+ months. Ugh.

  4. good post, but for me at least the time management problem went much wider/deeper/farther: i too still obsess about studying Chinese but i don’t live in the Middle Country anymore, am not studying linguistics, don’t have a side job teaching Chinese, don’t have a Chinese spouse, do have a nine month son and most of all don’t have your seemingly boundless energy.

    however, i recently stumbled on this: Getting things done

    bought the book, am now applying it and am for now enthusing. you might want to check it out.

  5. oops. dammit.

    one of the facts of life i hate most: software that thinks it’s smarter than me 🙁 (even more so when it’s actually right but that is not now the case.)

    please insert underscores between ‘getting’ and ‘things’ and between ‘things’ and ‘done’.

  6. Gah! I’m never going to be able to look that giant collection of books in the eye again. But then, I do really like books… 🙂

  7. Tuur,
    Great link, though there is something sweetly ironic about buying a book about getting things done when the original issue was buying books instead of just getting things done 🙂

  8. I actually went so far as to write software to help myself study. 🙂
    never used it after I stopped working on it, mainly because getting lessons typed up took so long.

  9. Mark Williams Says: August 2, 2007 at 11:21 am

    [Hi John – re-submitting with my full name as someone else has the single posting name Mark. This is Mark Williams from Brisbane, Australia – we emailed about a year and a half ago, and this is my first comment after reading your blog for a long while…]

    Great post John. So many of us identify with this ‘bookshelf syndrome’. I think it highlights psychologically how the act of researching and buying chinese learning resources itself satisfies the aspiration we hold to progress in our Chinese. It’s almost like the act of spending money and acquiring new resources gives us a sense of achievement and validation in its own right – we feel very self-satisfied that we have made ‘another important commitment’ to progress, we can almost gloat inside and, feeling satisfied, set the resources up as a trophy and sign of our strong commitment! Warped but definitely true in my case!

    For me, the battle is making a daily commitment of time; of saying, ‘how much do I really want fluency?’. If I want it bad, I will prioritise study time above other activities. This is the battle….

  10. So on that big bookshelf of yours, do you have any recommendations for a mom trying to learn Chinese and teach her young children at the same time? In rural midwest?? No-Chinesey-aroundy?

  11. Mark,

    Yeah, it could certainly be true about a lot of different subjects. I’m more Chinese-focused, though.

    The issue I’m raising, though, is less about money and more about how one allocates time and energy.

  12. Tuur,

    Thanks for the link (which I fixed, BTW). I will check it out.

    (I use Markdown to format posts, but the effects are applied to comments as well. I can’t really remove it because I have a lot of old posts that rely on it. I think there may be an update that fixes the issue with underscores in URLs, though, so I’ll have to look into that.)

  13. I’ve got a similar problem – every week I buy Modern Weekly to read in Chinese – I used to get through both the news and business sections (lots of time spent) but now barely get through the business section, don’t use a dictionary, and see my reading skills decline all the time

    On top of that sometimes I buy books in Chinese that usually go unread in favor of the weekly. Not too smart, eh?

  14. Justin (parasite) Says: August 2, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    I still remember my first year here… looking 6 months for the most perfect study book. Then finding out “the true secret” that I needed to use authentic material to advance to the authentic level… then another 6 months looking for “the perfect Children’s book”, one that was tolerable content-wise and readable within my tiny vocab. At the end of the year moving out of the dorm I spent $100 shipping boxes home, but even at that I ended up giving 75% of my books to some Korean kid who bought my stereo system. . . sigh And in the end? Well, I got REALLY GOOD AND FAST at scanning the bookshelves in a bookstore. (Perhaps because, even all these years later, I just have to scan for the book bindings that I don’t recognize!)

  15. The Bookshelf Problem takes a new form on the internet. I don’t know how many hours I’ve wasted reading blogs, listening to podcasts, and downloading software trying to find the perfect way to learn a language.

  16. How curiously relevant, as I had just put pictures of my current bookshelves up on my blog, complete with a shelf or so of Chinese study books, that, you hit the nail on the head, I’m not currently using.

    One fun way to study using fresh new books for people at a low to intermediate level (I know John is way past this but some other people might find it useful) is to buy short, cheap, children’s books (I usually limit myself to 1-2 per purchase and don’t let myself buy more until I’ve actually read through the ones I’ve got.) I’m embarrassingly still at a stage where even the little tiny ones with the pinyin take me months to get through, but eventually I’ll graduate to books that aren’t meant for pre-schoolers…I hope! :o)

  17. 音弗丽娅 Says: August 2, 2007 at 10:21 pm

    Would it help if you read novels instead of textbooks? I feel like you’d learn just as much, though I guess it’d be much more difficult.

  18. John,
    I once had that problem, too.

    Now that one of my sons got into a habit of devouring books I found some relieve. It didn’t even hurt when all those schoolkid-Chinesebooks, the “learning Chinese characters” and the “comprehensive German-Chinese dictionaries” were destroyed.

    Every material posession which is not digital (and backuped on a distant server), seems to be doomed in this appartment. Sigh.

  19. Reading enjoyable novels, short stories .. etc. was how I learned English. I could spend hours with an enjoyable book while just a few minutes with a school book put me to sleep.

    The trick is to not use a dictionary (or using it only when you absolutely positively can’t get the general meaning). Otherwise, interrupting your pleasure reading a novel, will be like the chore that studying is.

    (of course you need to be at a certain minimum level to be able to read novels)

  20. I’ve probably bought at least 10 Chinese books and can say that they probably contributed about 5% at very most to my Chinese progress. From my experience, if you are actually living in China, there are many better ways to improve your Chinese than using a book. When I was teaching English, my students would come to my room to practice. I would teach them new English words. They would teach me new Chinese words. I would correct their English pronunciation. They would correct my Chinese pronunciation.

    For more advanced Chinese studiers, I think I would unequivocally say that books are a waste of time. I find I get much more out of an intense hour long QQ session than I would from reading a text book. I always chat with Kingsoft open, so that if there is a word or character I don’t know, I can look it up on the spot. BBS’s are great for this also. Plus, you don’t feel like you’re studying, but you’re actually absorbing a lot more than you would from a book.

    As for oral practice, I would try to use what I call “situational learning.” Say I want to learn how to talk about digital cameras. I would have a Chinese friend first write down all the vocabulary for me (i.e. optical zoom, megapixel, Canon, Fuji, etc.) Then I would go to the electronics malls and go from stall to stall having striking up conversations with the employees about the products. Repeat, Repeat, Repeat…switch topic, repeat Works better than any textbook or DaShan TV program.

  21. […] The Bookshelf Problem by John. This is a common problem we all run into when trying to learn anything, but especially when trying to learn Chinese. You end up buying far more books than you need to actually learn the language. I know I’ve done it, and if you live in China and study Chinese, you have done it too. The perfect Chinese blog he refers to in his post is this one, of course… […]

  22. I didn’t do it with textbooks (I know myself well enough by now to know that I’ll never open them), but I do do it with novels. Oooh, I know that writer/have heard of that book/title sounds interesting and books hardly cost a thing anyway, so why not buy it? So now I have a bookshelf full of Chinese novels, and I’ve read only two of them. I never learn.

  23. … “the best flashcard program” …

    I’m still sporadically working on my version of the perfect Chinese flashcard program… four years after I first started. Argh.

  24. So true, so true …

    but buy that book anyway – can’t say how many times when idle books on my the shelves ultimately became useful at the “right” time …

  25. […] reading a Sinosplice post named “The Bookshelf Problem” I started to think I had the same problem (endlessly searching for the right book) in […]

  26. linda lee Says: August 22, 2007 at 11:48 am

    Hi, read your blog ( english blog and chinese blog), noted you have a problem regarding” the bookshelf problem”, if you stay in china, it is easier to learn chinese bez chinese is very passional, kindly to help you. moreover many of students learn english from elementary school, but same problem for me to learn english….

  27. Okay, You pegged me.

    I have 4 textbooks (one that includes a workbook, character workbook and set of 4 cds–which I have had for 4 years and have finished chapter 2), an idiom book, a grammar book, 2 dictionaries, 3 boxes of flashcards, 3 sets of audio cds, a phrase book and a bilingual children’s book. I also have a huge (partially written in) notebook and 2 packages of children’s character notebooks. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget Rosetta Stone, which I have been paying $200 every six months for 2 years (I am on chapter 11) and half a dozen bookmarked internet sites. Flog me.

    Last year, I had two students on two different days trying to teach me Chinese for free. The plan was a failure.

    I might also add that I am entering my third (nonconsecutive) year here.

    How is my Chinese? Dismal. And spotty.

    At home in the US, I pride myself in dropping $60-100 a month on books in general. Here I’m just embarrassed.

    I have recently hired a professional to make some sense out of my mess and force me to sit down for an hour a week. 50 RMB per lesson. She actually burst out laughing when I dumped my materials in front of her. Hopefully, this will work!

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