In May of 2020 I read Rediscovering the Small Web, which reminded me how fun the web used to be. I was already looking for a side project, so I decided to turn my personal site into a collection of things I like.
This page is under construction.
I started teaching myself Mandarin in late 2017. Over the years, I've tried a number of resources and techniques. Below are the ones that have worked best for me.
T'ung and Pollard's Colloquial Chinese. A friend recommended this to me, and it's by far the most useful Chinese textbook I've read. It has four major benefits: 1) it's all Pinyin, with no characters, so it's perfect if your goal is speaking and not reading; 2) it's well-written; 3) it's concise but dense with grammar; and 4) it has extensive dialogues with translations.
Pleco. An iPhone dictionary app. The basic version is free, but you can buy larger dictionaries and extra features, which are all worth it. (There's also an Android version, but I've never used it.)
Anki. A spaced-repetition flashcard app. I basically only use it on my iPhone, and while this essay makes a strong case for why you should create your own cards, I don't do that. Instead, I've been working through the Spoonfed Chinese deck. As of May 2020, Anki tells me I've logged 314 hours and studied 360 out of the past 365 days.
Physical flashcards. One of the reasons I don't make Anki flashcards is because I like making physical ones using 3x5 index cards. The process of writing them helps me remember the words, and I can study them without looking at a screen.
Verbling. A website where you can pay people to help you learn languages over video chat. Many people use this to follow a curriculum, effectively taking private classes. I've taken a different approach, which has worked well for me. First, every time I run into something confusing or otherwise have a question I can't answer on my own, I write it down. For instance, if I find a sentence that I don't understand the grammar of, or I want to know whether a word has negative connotation, or I just come across an idea I can't express in Mandarin. Then the next time I have a Verbling session I pose these questions to my teacher. Second, if I ever run out of questions, we just chat until I get tripped up on grammar or expressing something, at which point we step back and analyze the sentence, with my teacher correcting what I said and helping me understand and practice the right way to say it.
Podcasts. In general, just listening to things hasn't been an effective way for me to improve my Mandarin, since it's too passive and easy for me to drift off. But there are times I can't or don't have the energy to do something more active, and no matter how ineffective it is, listening to a podcast is better than just reading Twitter.
Finding podcasts that are both interesting and accessible enough for me to follow along with is a challenge. The best I've found for this is the Taiwanese Diaspora Podcast. Most episodes include a combination of English and Mandarin. Even better, some interviews are fully bilingual, meaning the host asks (and the guest answers) the question in English, and then they have roughly the same exchange in Chinese.
Movies and TV shows. Like podcasts, I don't actually think these are great language-learning tools, at least at my current level. But they're fun, and are a good way to hear how words and phrases I already know are actually used. Even when I'm mostly just reading the subtitles I try to pause a couple of times throughout to look up particularly interesting or useful words and idioms in Pleco.
I mostly use Viki, Amazon Prime, and Netflix to watch movies and TV shows in Mandarin. In addition to Chinese and Taiwanese films and shows, Netflix has a number of English shows with Mandarin audio options, and their website lets you browse by audio language (unfortunately, I don't think you can do this in the apps unless you change your language setting).
Recently I've enjoyed Ode to Joy (packed with idioms like 說曹操曹操就到 and 天下没有白吃的午餐), Candy Online, What She Put On The Table (also a good history lesson on Taiwan), The Fox's Summer, and Nothing Gold Can Stay.
Music. While I've not found listening to most Chinese music helpful for my language learning (as much as I enjoy Mandopop), I have found listening to translations of songs I know in English to be useful, especially if I can find the lyrics in Pinyin. This playlist of Mandarin Disney songs includes high-quality renditions of songs from Beauty & the Beast, Alladin, and The Lion King. YouTube also has some good stuff, like Call Me Maybe and I Want It That Way in Mandarin.
I've lost count of how many bookstores have closed since I moved to New York in 2006, and whatever the number is it's a tiny fraction of the many, many more that left before I arrived. Thankfully, New York still has a lot of bookstores, and new ones continue to open, though not as quickly as others close.
Below are some bookstores I like, roughly grouped by neighborhood. I hope they survive and I am able to go to them again once it's safe to do so.
Many of these stores are still doing online sales and/or gift certificates in the interim. Please support them if you can!
Community Bookstore in Park Slope. A great, general-purpose neighborhood bookshop with a friendly cat (and staff), a small backyard, and a public restroom. They only sell new books.
POWERHOUSE On 8th in Park Slope has a small selection of new books (mostly new releases) and children's books. The same folks also run the much larger POWERHOUSE Arena in Dumbo.
Stories Bookshop & Storytelling Lab in Park Slope is a delightful children's bookstore with everything from board books to chapter books. They also have a good public bathroom.
Terrace Books in Windsor Terrace is Community's sibling store. It's smaller but sells used (in addition to new) books.
Unnameable Books in Prospect Heights is small but packed to the gills with used and new books.
The Center for Fiction in Fort Greene is a bookstore, cafe, and much more, though I only have experience with the bookstore and cafe. Mostly new fiction books, though they do have some non-fiction titles.
Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene is another excellent, general-purpose new bookstore. They also have a location in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, but I haven't been yet.
Books Are Magic in Cobble Hill has a good selection of new books, including a large children's book room with great nooks for young people to read.
Freebird Books near Cobble Hill has an excellent selection of used books about New York City history, architecture, and more. Note that it is only open on weekends.
Human Relations in Bushwick practically overflows with used books, with an especially good collection of noir.
The Mysterious Bookshop in Tribeca is the oldest mystery bookstore in the US. They sell both new and used, including rare and signed editions of mystery and crime fiction. They also publish their own books, host events, and have those cool rolling ladders.
Housing Works Bookstore Cafe & Bar is unique in that it is a non-profit run primarily by volunteers, with all profits going towards fighting AIDS and homelessness. The store has a good selection of used books, and a large cafe, but it can be hard to get a seat.
McNally Jackson Books in Nolita has a large selection of new books, as well as a cafe (with pie from Four & Twenty Blackbirds) and fun readings and events.
Recently, they've expanded and opened stores in Downtown Brooklyn at City Point, Williamsburg, and the Seaport. I've only been to the City Point store so far, and it is beautiful, large, and cavernous, with tons of nooks and crannies and places to explore and read in.
Mercer Street Books & Records in Greenwich Village is an excellent source of used books, including cheap paperbacks you can read in nearby Washington Square Park. (Bonus: In nice weather there's an unrelated bookseller a few blocks away on the sidewalk just across from the park, on the south side of the street where Washington Square East dead ends into Washington Square South, and another on the east side of 6th Ave south of 9th St.)
Three Lives & Company in the West Village is the quintessential neighborhood shop nestled on an idyllic street. The staff are extremely knowledgable and will give you excellent recommendations if you tell them what you like.
East Village Books is another excellent source of cheap, used books, and they're open until 11pm or midnight many nights.
Alabaster Books on 4th Ave near Union Square is a true gem and great option for cheap, used books. It's hard to imagine but the few blocks of nearby 4th Ave once housed nearly 50 used bookstores in what was called "Book Row." They have a far better-than-average selection of old detective novels, the best of which are usually in the stacks near the front and not shelved in the mystery section.
Strand Bookstore near Union Square is by far the largest and best known store on this list, with a massive collection of new and used books across several floors. They also sell books at outdoor kiosks in Central Park (southeast corner), on the UWS, and in Times Square.
Rizzoli Bookstore near Madison Square Park specializes in illustrated subjects (e.g., art, architecture, fashion, etc) and foreign language literature, though they do have other books as well. Unlike most stores on this list, the interior is ornate and spacious, giving it a very different feel.
Argosy Book Store in Midtown. A nearly 100-year-old used bookstore specializing in Americana, maps, and antique and rare editions. The space itself is beautiful, and the first couple of times I visited I didn't realize how big it actually is.
Albertine on the Upper East Side isn't a store I go to much because it mostly sells French books, and I don't read French. I've included it nevertheless because it's housed inside a historic mansion, and the store is just so beautiful and peaceful.
If you have a favorite NYC bookstore that's not on this list, please email me (me AT nicholasbs.net), especially if they have a good selection of used mystery and noir books.