Thursday, January 15, 2009

52 Books in 52 Weeks week 2

I have no regrets about the roads not taken in my life, especially since I get to vicariously enjoy one of those roads, my abandoned career as a China scholar, through wonderful books written by other travelers. The Man Who Loved China is one of those wonderful books that takes me back to my college and grad school days when I was a student in the Department of East Asian Studies.

The Man Who Loved China is a biography of Joseph Needham, the author of the multi volume Science and Civilization in China, one of the main reference tools from my student days. I still have on my bookshelf a condensed version of it, and pull it out from time to time to look up some date or fact when I'm thinking about Chinese history. One of the things that amused me while reading this biography was the realization that as a student I never even stopped to consider who had written Science and Civilization -- what kind of man would be driven to do that sort of tedious research, how did he do it and when. It was one of those reference books that was a fixture in the library -- that the author was still alive and publishing further volumes while I was a student came as a huge surprise!

The book isn't just for washed up sinophiles like me, though. Simon Winchester is a very readable author who has captured both the brilliance and eccentricities of Neeham. He also brings to life the atmosphere at Cambridge, the chaos of WWII China and the paranoia of the Cold War. It is engaging and edifying when it could so easily have been a dry, stultifying read.

I especially loved reading about Needham's travels throughout China during WWII. He spent weeks following the old Silk Road, finally getting stuck in an outpost noted for a system of caves filled with Buddhist statues and paintings. In another trip to Fujian narrowly escaped being trapped by the Japanese. He was based in Chongqing with Chiang Kai-shek, but managed also to befriend Chou Enlai.

I learned while reading this book that the author of my Chinese textbooks, John DeFrances, had just passed away, and in reading some obituaries and memorials discovered that he had traveled along the Silk Road in the 1930s. His memoir about those travels, In the Footsteps of Ghengis Khan, was amazingly on the bookshelf in my branch library, and is my current read. I plan on staying in China for a while yet, as I never read The Good Earth, and there are a few other titles that have caught my attention.

People often say to me how sad it is that I never used my degree, but I truly enjoy settling down with good books on China and revisiting my old student days.

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