I was going to concoct a recommended reading list. I get sort of frustrated that I can't find a list of the sort that I'd like, so I thought maybe I'd write one. At least then, other people would have from me what I want from someone else. But that's going to be a much bigger undertaking than I imagined at first... certainly more than the work of a single day.
So, as a sort of weak-coffee impromptu substitute, I thought I'd throw up another little plug for the pleasing and wonderful "Penguin Great Ideas" series. If you don't already know the series, it's a uniform edition of very nicely designed and printed deluxe paperback pamphlets that provide brief "samples" or "tastings" of great authors and great books.
The key to the project is that they are authors and books we might not—no, that we probably would not—otherwise read. I mean, it's all well and good to be able to make references to Thorsten Veblen, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer, but what non-specialist, post-University, actually reads books by them? It's common to assume that every educated person is more or less conversant with the identities and ideas of thinkers such as Adam Smith, Rousseau, and Marx, but, again, who actually delves firsthand? (Even most economists have never read Smith in the formidable original. I haven't either, even though I own the magnificent Folio Society three-volume set. I have it scheduled for my sixties). Finally, there are those authors who, unless they were assigned to you in school (and maybe not even then, if we're honest), you will just never read if you live to be a hundred and ten, like Thomas Hobbes or Gibbon or David Hume—and of course nobody reads classics these days, so Seneca, Plutarch, and Lucretius are pleasant to encounter en passant. (I have read Plutarch, in North's translation, but that's because I have a side interest in Elizabethan translations.)
So this is where the Penguin pamphlets come in. They're good for those of us willing to admit that no, we're not ever going to read the whole Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or Hannah Arendt. Because, if you don't actually read Thoreau (now that idea actually fills me with consternation—Walden is my favorite book, #1 all time, the best ever, the top of the heap, the one book I would take to the apocryphal desert island), you should certainly at least read a little.
I have a longstanding fetishistic fondness for books, I admit—books as objects, books as art—and the "Great Ideas" pamphlets are lovely little fillips in that regard too. Most of the covers are entirely or mostly typographical, and all of the pamphlets I've seen have been especially well designed. Clearly, Penguin employs some talented designers, and clearly, they've been given the green light to do their thing. They've created many modest masterpieces.
Into every such series a clinker must fall, of course, and I regret that I cannot recommend the Penguin Great Ideas Tao te Ching. It is the world's second most-translated book (after the Holy Bible), but the translation they've chosen isn't very good. (I've made a bit of a study-on-the-side of the Tao, too—I now own some 18 translations and counting.)
Although this series has proliferated—I remember when the first ones came out, and there are many more now, some of them already out of print—it's probably not a series you'd want to collect comprehensively. There's no real reason to do so. Just as the series itself dips its toe into many waters, so it would be best to pick and choose what appeals to you personally from within the many offerings. (Here's the U.K. link.) I certainly don't need the Orwell titles, for instance, because I already have everything he ever wrote. I bought them anyway; but do as I say, not as I do, and don't feel bad if you only try a few—that's the nature of sampling.
Really, though, shouldn't everyone read at least a little Montaigne and just a little Emerson? The whole works might not fit a busy modern life, but an acquaintance with the actual words of many of these great authors goes a long way toward enriching it.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts that appears on TOP on Sundays.
P.S. This is one of those posts that cost me a lot of money to write. :-)
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Question from Mark Roberts: "OK, which translation of the Tao te Ching would you recommend? :)"
Mike replies: I was afraid someone would ask me that. I can't really answer. I don't speak or read Chinese, so I'm not in a position to expound directly on the accuracy of the translations, and (obviously, since I don't speak Chinese), I'm not an expert on ancient Chinese literature and its cultural context. Plus, I can only comment on translations into English.
One problem is that various translators' beliefs about the interpretations of the meanings of the chapters will color their choices when rendering the texts in English. A further difficulty is that (I'm told) the shadings of meanings, connotations, and references implicit in Chinese word choices cannot be conveyed into English without great pendulous explanations, which leads to...excessive specification, you might call it. Finally, translators' goals have differed: some are trying to accurately convey philosophical meaning, some are trying to hew to the best textural sources, some want the literal meanings of the characters to convey, and some are trying to reproduce the poetry and simplicity of the original. All this can lead to widely varying results.
That said, Arthur Waley has long been considered the most accurate English translation, although his is literarily ponderous. Prof. Chichung Huang's is reputedly the most literal from a linguistic and scholarly perspective. My vote for the "best" would be the one by Robert G. Henricks (Ballantine Books, 1989), for its balance of scholarly scrupulousness and the rather easy, colloquial, effortless quality of the prose he uses in his translations, and his, let's call it, nonpartisan approach to the various controversies and allegiances.
That said, my very favorite is the most demotic (in America at least)—the longstanding bestseller ostensibly translated by Gia-Fu Feng—and not just because it is illustrated with photographs! (By Jane English). To enlist a musical analogy, there is a great danger with this text of "talking about notes" instead of playing them and feeling the swing. This version does get some of the trees wrong, but it sees the forest.
It is actually not a true translation. The book was evidently conceived to show off the photographs of Jane English, and Gia-Fu Feng did not have a very comprehensive command of English when he did the translation. His editor at Knopf/Vintage, however, was the most excellent Toinette Lippe, then at the beginning of her distinguished career, who saw promise in the project. So she worked with Feng to extensively re-write the English text. The result might be considered a "fantasia" on the Tao te Ching, rather than strictly a "translation." And yet, it...well, it's music, and it swings. It's been a perennial bestseller, and deserves that status in my opinion. It's vivid, communicative, poetically simple, and implies the text's profundities without forcing them to earth with a thud.
My position is that Eastern classics, like Eastern religions, take on a new life when they come to new lands, and slavish devotion to the historical and cultural contexts and original meanings is not necessarily superior to the life it finds in new soil; and in that respect, the Feng/Lippe book has an important place in the American cultivar of philosophical Taoism. It is still the version I recommend first, and love best.
Featured Comment by Otto Pietinen: "My answer to Mark Roberts as a student of classical Chinese philosophy is: None are satisfactory, at least from the point of view of philosophical content. The language used in the texts of the Hundred Schools era (6th to 3rd centuries BCE) is grammatically very open to different interpretations because of its lack of redundancy. Any communication of information requires a certain amount of noise in addition to the actual content in order to be legible, but the written Chinese of the period minimizes this. It doesn't mark definite/indefinite, plural/singular or gender distinctions, and has no cases or verbal inflection. In addition, parts of sentences are often omitted, and distinctions between parts of speech is only indicated by syntax, meaning you can't distinguish to win, victory, victoriously and victorious except by the context of the other things contained in the sentence, to which the same of course applies. And they didn't use punctuation either, so deciding what to actually include in a sentence can be a bit tricky at times.
"Now when you add the facts that the earliest dictionary of Chinese is from early 2nd century CE, at least 350 years after the writing of the Daodejing [Daodejing = Tao to Ching...just different ways of transliterating —Ed.], and the earliest commentary on the text was written some 100 years after that in an intellectual climate transformed by the introduction of buddhist philosphy to China, it is quite apparent that the explicit meaning of the text is very difficult or impossible to decipher, which is the reason translators differ so wildly in their interpretations. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't read or enjoy them, and unless you're going to learn classical Chinese, you should read many. One theory, not my own though I can't remember the source, for the popularity of the Daodejing is that it actually contains very little theoretical content, but rather evocative, poetry-like language that requires the reader to fill in the blanks with their own thoughts, thus making it accessible to anyone who enjoys thinking. This would mean that the individual translations are more like separate works inspired by the original book, but by reading several and comparing, you'd get a more and more complete view of the Daodejing by considering the viewpoints of the translators.
"For those interested in the philosophy of the period, I would recommend Chad Hansen's book A Daoist Theory of Chinese Thought. For maximum enjoyment you should first read a more conventional introduction, such as Feng Youlan's (also romanized Fung Yu-lang) A History of Chinese Philosophy or for a slightly modernized view, Angus C. Graham's Disputers of the Dao, as the Hansen book is a very polemical attack against what he calls 'the traditional interpretation.'"
Featured Comment by Toinette Lippe: "'Fantasia' is a strong word, Mike. There are many good collaborative translations that have stood the test of time and this, I believe, is one of them (it has sold over a million copies in North America).
"Gia-fu Feng grew up in China and studied with a classical Chinese scholar. He owned both ancient and modern Chinese versions of the Tao Te Ching and, to begin with, he translated both versions character by character and compared the two. He then shared one chapter each day with the students of the Stillpoint community he had founded. Each morning the group studied the text as a spiritual exercise, exploring its ideas and refining the language. I don't read Chinese and so I could not compare any of the English translations with the original. So I chose a dozen translations ranging from Arthur Waley’s historically accurate version to Witter Bynner’s lyrical poem, which seemed to take liberties with the text while perfectly expressing its spirit. I would study how each of the twelve translators had rendered a particular sentence and then return to Gia-fu’s translation to see what he thought it meant. I would then find a way to express his understanding in a simple natural way and in words that had not been used by other translators. It was the opposite of plagiarism. Finally, I would read each page aloud to a young Mexican friend and if it did not read well or if she looked puzzled, I would adjust the words or the cadence until the meaning was clearly delivered. After which I sent batches of the new text to Gia-fu who would approve (or occasionally disapprove) of what I had done.
"Over time all languages shift and some words and phrases become less immediate than they were a generation or so earlier. This October, Vintage will be releasing a new version of the book in three formats—the illustrated edition, the text-only edition, and an ebook for the first time. The new version remains faithful to the original text while using contemporary language that rings true for our time. And, in the illustrated edition, Jane English has replaced over a hundred of the photographs with others that she has made in the ensuing years."
Toinette Lippe is the former Rights Director at Alfred A. Knopf and the Founding Editor (emeritus) of Bell Tower, an imprint of Crown/Harmony. She is the author of two books, Nothing Left Over and Caught in the Act. You can see her brush paintings at her website. —Ed.