My Favorite Pasttime

A couple months ago, I picked up a copy of the Essays in Idleness, or Tsurezuregusa (徒然草), which I had written about previously. The book is actually a pretty engaging read, with lots of little quotables that I hope to post a quotation every day this week for your reading enjoyment. :) The Essays, a required reading for Japanese kids in schools (at least in my wife’s generation), is a kind of free-writing done by 13th century priest Kenkō, and covers a wide variety of subjects, from history to Buddhism, to social commentary, to aimless speculation.

One of my favorite quotes is section #13:

The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under the lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known. The books I would chose are the moving volumes of Wen Hsüan,1 the collected works of Po Chü-i, the sayings of Lao Tzu, and the chapters of Chuang Tzu. Among works by scholars of this country, those written long ago are often quite interesting.

Speaking as one who spent his teenage youth reading the Tao Te Ching and the Chuang Tzu countless times, and other works by ancient writers, both eastern and western,2 I know exactly how Kenkō feels. Even today, as evinced by this blog, it’s fair to say it’s still one of my favorite pasttimes. :)

1 Prof. Donald Keene explains that this is a collection of poetry compiled by Prince Chao Ming of Liang (501-531), but I can’t find any further information online without knowing the Chinese characters. Update: reader “A-Joe” pointed out that this is actually the Wenxuan (文選), pronounced in Japanese as Monzen. Details can be found here. Thanks A-Joe!

2 As freshman in college, I enjoyed both The Anabasis by Xenophon as well as the Gallic Wars by Julius Caesar.

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4 Comments on “My Favorite Pasttime”

  1. Jonathan says:

    Love this post. I fondly remember reading Lao Tzu and Chang Tzu as a college freshman in an “Introduction to Chinese Philosophy” course and it’s very cool to think books (and now, I suppose, blogs) can create a community of readers that transcends place and time.

    By the way, there’s a similar tradition of monastic bibliophilia in the West as well, e.g. Philobiblon” by Richard de Bury (chapter 1): “In books I find the dead as if they were alive; in books I foresee things to come; in books warlike affairs are set forth; from books come forth the laws of peace.” Books are even better teachers than real teachers! “[Books] are masters who instruct us without rod or ferule, without angry words, without clothes or money. If you come to them they are not asleep; if you ask and inquire of them they do not withdraw themselves; they do not chide if you make mistakes; they do not laugh at you if you are ignorant. O books, who alone are liberal and free, who give to all who ask of you and enfranchise all who serve you faithfully!”

  2. Jonathan says:

    Whoops make that “Chuang Tzu.” I need to be better about proofreading my writing.

  3. A-Joe says:

    “Prof. Donald Keene explains that this is a collection of poetry compiled by Prince Chao Ming of Liang (501-531), but I can’t find any further information online without knowing the Chinese characters.”

    Wenxuan is written 文選, pronounced in Japanese Monzen.

  4. Doug says:

    Hi guys,

    Jonathan: Yeah, I remember getting into it a little in high school, but college was something else. I read the Lao Tzu countless times and really felt I was a Taoist for a time. :) “Monastic bibliophilia” is a term I’ve never heard before but you’ve really gotten me intrigued. I liked the quotation quite a bit, too, thank you!

    A-Joe: Thank you, good sir. You are a gentleman. :) I will update the blog post without haste.

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