Archive for the 'Books' Category

And So We Ramble Far From Home

photo by shenxy

AS I READ TODAY about a disturbing bit of news relating to the Sichuan quake, my eyes drifted over to an advert for a new book titled The Man Who Loved China: The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom. This quickly changed my mood from one of baffled disgust (which I can save for another post) to calm curiosity.

I became even more excited when I noticed that the book was penned by travel writer and journalist Simon Winchester, who wrote a book a while back with a similarly unwieldy title that had resonated with me nonetheless. This new release, I found out, is a biography of famed China scholar Joseph Needham, who invested himself so deeply in the cultural history of the country that he produced 24 volumes and 15,000 pages trying to answer a single question: Why did the West eclipse China?

Still intrigued, I sought out a review on the book (which was released just this month) and came across a piece on Salon by Andrew Leonard, who appears to be a bit of China-head himself. In describing the feeling of kinship he feels with Needham, Leonard pointedly fleshes out the emotions felt by the lot of travelers and expats who find themselves drawn to places far and foreign:

I feel a kinship across the decades with Dr. Needham. I believe I can imagine exactly what it was like for the esteemed biochemist to disembark from “a battered old Douglas C-47 Skytrain” in Chongqing in March 1943, and feel instantly, passionately overwhelmed by a culture equal parts alien and entrancing. I believe all the outsiders who have become fascinated with China can relate. There’s a brilliance to the first part of the title of Winchester’s biography — “The Man Who Loved China” (let’s ignore for now the ungainly subtitle, “The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom”) — because even as it implies that this one man may have loved the civilization to an extent greater than the vast majority of the rest of us, the words still strike a chord with anyone who has been bitten by the Asia bug. We all savor that taste — Needham just took it to the next level.

Though I’m wary of the wide brush Leonard uses in the phrase, “the Asia bug,” in a way I can identify with what he’s getting at. People fall in love with foreign nations all over the globe, but the relationships that travelers build with countries on the Asian continent are perhaps all the more vexing and intriguing because it is a region that continues to be widely misunderstood. By that token I can describe my own affinity for Korea, as I am drawn to the nation as much for its endearing qualities as for those which leave me bewildered.

Leonard criticizes Winchester a bit for skirting around Needham’s grand question and instead focusing on the doctor’s patchwork personality. (Needham was “‘an accordion player, and a chain-smoking churchgoer’ and a supporter of gay rights who was a participant in an ‘open’ marriage that allowed him to carry on a wife-approved decades-long affair with the love of his life, a Chinese woman named Lu Gwei-djen,” Leonard says). Though I’ve yet to read the book, I feel that criticism may be missing the point.

Those of us who choose to steep ourselves in cultures foreign to our own do so to outwardly answer questions about our adopted country as much as to simply solve why we are so drawn in the first place. In both cases, the thing we seek is often nebulous — which may be one reason why Needham never really “unlocked” China, as Leonard points out. But my hope is that Winchester’s illustration of the doctor will touch a bit more on the heart of this latter question, and on the mysterious qualities in people that lead them to ramble far from home.

The Ghosts of Travel Past

AS THE INTERNET OVERFLOWS with personal travelogues and off-the-cuff photos taken by people documenting their lives around the world, it’s hard to imagine a time when travel journals were mostly private, introspective things.

But a new book, Around the World, moves to remind our generation of a more intimate art with a gorgeous collection of antique travel snapshots and found reflective scribblings dating back to the 19th century. Brooklyn’s The Morning News has the story, including a photo gallery and an interview with Barbara Levine, who co-authored the book with well-known travel writer Kirsten Jensen.

‘Living Carelessly in Tokyo’

Via New York Times writer Howard French, author and translator John Nathan has a new book coming out that chronicles “life at the center of the arts and intellectual scene in Tokyo (and elsewhere) in the 1960s.” French received a pre-publication copy of Nathan’s Living Carelessly in Tokyo and Elsewhere, and had some high praise for it.

Nathan has translated the works of such famous Japanese authors as Yukio Mishima, a fervent nationalist who killed himself by ritual seppuku (but not before making a chilling film about it), and according to Wikipedia Nathan was also the first American to be admitted to Tokyo University as a regular student.

With the unique window that Nathan likely has into Japanese culture it looks to be a good read for the literary traveler.

Point It Traveler’s Dictionary

WHEN traveling, I feel it’s always in the best taste to at least try to speak the local language, however much one may butcher it.

During my time Beijing, the Lonely Planet phrasebook I brought along was a big help. But truthfully, an untrained ear trying to pronounce Mandarin’s tones meant I got a lot of blank looks when I ventured beyond “Ni hao” (Hello) and “Xie Xie” (Thank you). So I ended up doing a lot of pointing; this made for some interesting surprises – like pointing to “breakfast,” without a clue of what might come to the table.

This is the central idea behind the Point It travelers dictionary, which I picked up at the MoMA shop in New York a while back. This thin book is divided into basic categories – Food, Hotel, Transport and Shopping, etc. – with each section featuring photos of things like place settings, animals, modes of transportation…anything you might need to find the word for.

Though the photos look like they’re from circa 1970, this looks to be an extremely useful reference – there’s no need to carry around a bunch of dictionaries if you’re crossing through countries, and I imagine one could just pick up on words as they went along, instead of trying in vain to pronounce poorly-romanized words from phrasebooks.

Sadly, I’ve yet to have a journey where I needed to use the book. Whether it’s the travel essential the publishers claim it is, I’m not sure, but you can bet it’s coming with me on my next international flight.

Celebrating 50 Years of ‘On The Road’

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road. Before that I’d often dreamed of going West to see the country, always vaguely planning and never taking off.

Yesterday marked 50 years since those words were first published, the opening lines of Jack Kerouac’s famous novel, On the Road. It was a work that inspired the beats, and continues to send ripples through generations.

To celebrate, students at Naropa University, a Buddhist college in Boulder, Colo., gave a marathon reading of the novel – according to the AP, about 150 people attended the 12 hour cover-to-cover session, where fans and some close friends took turns reading.

My first interaction with Kerouac was with another novel, Dharma Bums, which hit a soft spot as I entered a coming-of-age exploration of religion at the tender age of 17, and was first flirting with Buddhist thought. As many others surely feel, Kerouac’s writing spoke to me in its own mad way, and I gobbled it up – next was On the Road, Desolation Angels, Satori in Paris and Visions of Cody. (The latter of which I will somewhat shamefully admit to having never finished, as the 100 plus pages of pure transcription from taped dialogue was too much for me to digest.)

The way Kerouac viewed his life has certainly shaped my own – he saw all these experiences out there, just waiting to be eaten up and lived. Though carefully introspective and aware of moral questions, he gave no heed to the daily concerns that limit most of us from really grabbing life by the balls, so to speak. He was a traveler, in the fullest sense of the word, roaming North America from East to West, down to Mexico City and across the ocean to Tangiers and Paris. He sought enlightenment from people, from music and from poetry – in my view, from all the right places.

If I had never read Kerouac’s works, I would surely be living in a more closed-in space. His poetry and novels gave me the feeling that I had a companion, in another place and time, who could help me break out into the full color of the world.


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