Coming to America

I’ve been looking for my own copy of Gia-fu Feng and Jane English’s edition of Chuang Tsu for at least five years.  I found one the other night at the Brookline Booksmith.  My parents have one; almost as soon as I moved I was able to find a copy of the matching Tao Te Ching.  I mentioned it here.  I was surprised to find the Chuang Tsu at all.  Although it seems a reissue is available on Amazon, the copy I found is dated 1974, and I’m sure it’s less common than the Tao Te Ching.  Chuang Tsu is described as the Plato to Lao Tsu’s Socrates, his Inner Chapters the “perfect expression” of Taoism.  He is the source of the image of the man who dreams he is a butterfly wondering if he is a butterfly dreaming of being a man.  I’ve actually read the poetic and epigrammatic Tao Te Ching, but I have to admit it may be some time before I do more than look at the gorgeous pictures in this one.

Gia-fu Feng came to the United States after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937.  The period comprising the fall of the emperor, the Japanese invasion, World War II, and the communist takeover was obviously a time of great chaos and destruction.  I know almost nothing about it, and, what’s maybe worse, I don’t even know a book I should read.  The 25th anniversary edition of Feng’s Tao Te Ching contains a tiny snippet of autobiography; here and elsewhere there are tantalizing hints of a longer memoir.

This post was precipitated by a thought that struck me suddenly while poking around after information about Gi-fu Feng: After the fall of the old order in China, there must have been an exodus on the same order as that following the Russian revolution, and yet it doesn’t seem to be given nearly the same credit, so to speak.  I would say that in my mental map of the twentieth century American intellect, the influence of the Russian diaspora far outweighs that of China’s.

This is truly shocking to me, after a fashion, not least because one of my best friends growing up was a recent Chinese immigrant.  But I am really not thinking in such personal terms.  I know almost nothing about it, so perhaps I’m wrong, or merely repeating western prejudice.  It may even be a matter of East Coast versus West Coast, of New York and Boston versus California.  Unlike my father, I never went to school in the western U.S.  It also occurs to me that the Russian influence is closely related to the colossal impact of the Holocaust.  Indeed, it appears that Vladimir Nabokov, the only figure that immediately jumps to mind as a Russian emigre of great importance for American culture (perhaps quite sufficient on his own), lived in Berlin after leaving Russia, and it’s easy to guess why he left.  The cultural effect of the revolution was not immediate, and, similarly, Einstein had his annus mirabilis of 1905 long before he removed to the United States.  Perhaps the impact of the Cultural Revolution is yet to be appreciated here.

Here’s what I want to know: does the cultural impact of the Russian Revolution on America really outweigh that of China’s, despite the obvious parallels?  How far does the effect extend, and are there vast intellectual movements, a hundred and more years old now, whose stories have yet to be told?  Is the translation empire of Pevear and Volokhonsky rooted in the upheavals at the beginning of the twentieth century?  Who, besides Nabokov, am I missing?  Leafing through the Inner Chapters, I found a discussion between Confucius and one Yen Hui.  What is Confucius doing in the Taoist text?  Is there any parallel in the Platonic dialogues of philosophers and demagogues, and the efforts of later and lesser writers like Philostratus to untangle them?  Who can tell?  Without greater cognizance of these matters, do we in our political moment risk throwing away something of inestimable value?

I Bought a Dictionary

I’m kind of ashamed of this one.  Let’s face it, print dictionaries are pretty pointless now.  This is a big one, guaranteed to become a burden at some point in my future; it weighs around five pounds and is of a size that only suggests similarly obsolete items, like a VCR or a desktop computer.  Yes, it’s a Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, unabridged.  The worst thing about this purchase is that I already own one.

My dictionary, open to the plate

In my defense, it was absurdly cheap.  I’m not one to get alarmed over the state of books and reading, but something profound does appear to be happening to the market when reference works of this quality go all but discarded.  The W2, as they call it, came out in 1934, and is still sometimes seen propped open on tables in good libraries.  The first printings of W2 contained the famous “dord” error: a slip reading “D or d” as abbreviations for density was misconstrued, given a pronunciation, and printed as a word.  The W3 came out in 1961, occasioned some controversy for including words like “ain’t”, and remains the last of its line. 

The one I just bought is on India paper, meaning it has about half the thickness of one printed on ordinary paper, and its binding has held up correspondingly well.  My first W2 is one of the thickest books you will ever see.  It’s almost a cube.  I went so far as to make a lectern shelf with a sloping top, but the book has been well used and the state of the binding made me afraid to let it stay there.  It has sentimental value as well, and is also a dord dictionary.  The new one isn’t a dord, and so I’m happy to study the long term effects of my lectern on the binding.

I’ve put it to decent use so far.  Some smart guy used the word “diuturnal” in an article I was reading.  Other words I’m keeping secret for use in games of dictionary.  The plates alone were worth the price of the book.  I waited weeks before buying it.  Most people just don’t know a great thing when they see it.

Fantastic Maps of American History

I think I need to start blogging more regularly about my finds in Boston area used bookstores.  Yesterday afternoon it was Atlas of American History, edited by James Truslow Adams and published by Scribners in 1943.  I paid five bucks for this book, which, following a beautifully simple plan, consists of 147 full page maps.  There are no paragraphs of text aside from the briefest notes where they can be fit into the maps themselves, and (a somewhat strange claim) there are no “nonexact pictorial interpretations”.  It works, though, and some of the maps are incredible.


I guess I’m always thinking about maps, but this book fits particularly well with some other things I’ve seen lately.  A little while ago the London Review of Books casually upended the world when they published a remark to the effect that the names of Tolkien’s hobbits were derived from American sources, in Appalachia to be specific.  The Boston Public Library is putting on an exhibit of maps of imaginary worlds.  They had Narnia, Middle Earth, and Westeros, but also Redwall; it was nothing revelatory, perhaps, but still cool to see them large and in one place.  Look at some of the place names on the map below.  What’s so fantastical, so outlandish, about fantasy?