Thoughts on Summer, Life, and Art of the Personal Essay

Thursday, July 14, 2011

After receiving The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present as part of my Amazon order for the summer (I haven’t been to the bookstore in a long time), I felt great chagrin at my summer reading. The sheer size of the anthology scared me, as the book is slightly under 800 pages. I quickly counted the time I had to read it. Two months. I rolled this horrendous word in my mouth, tasting the tartness. My summer reading was like a growing mountain, the result of the clash between the tectonic plates, Time and Realization.
The Ugly Mountain of My Summer Reading

The idea that summer holds an innumerable amount of time is buried deep in my mind, perhaps a leftover remnant of my carefree childhoods in which summer seemed an eternity. However, time seems to slip from my hands like sand in a gust of wind, and I realize exactly how much time I’ve wasted and how much time I have left. I may have two months, but in those two months, I have to read 355 pages of The Art of the Personal Essay, read four chapters of my history textbook, and read my biology textbook, in preparation for the upcoming semester. On top of that, I have to attend summer class. Why did I make my life so difficult? So, there I was feeling like this mountain, which seemed more like a malignant tumor than a mountain, was already uprooting my life. However, the dork that I am, decided to read Lu Hsun’s and Junichiro Tanizaki’s essays, which amounts to forty pages of extra (unassigned) reading.

In a way, I hate that part of me that does more than the assigned work, but in a way, I’m thankful. Reading these unassigned essays, I felt calm. It wasn’t really the topics of the essays that made me feel that way. No, it was due to the way the words, sentences, and paragraphs were formed and flowed. It made me feel nostalgia for the land I was born in, the land that always feels like a warm blanket, even it I am altogether unfamiliar in the place. Perhaps that’s why I prefer reading haikus and Tang-dynasty poems over Emily Dickinson’s poems, and the love-story of The Dreams of the Red Chamber over Romeo and Juliet. It may be due to my upbringing or maybe the amount of literature I’ve exposed myself to, but I always look to the Asian side for a quick breather than dive back into classical English prose.

I read “In Praise of Shadows” by Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) first. According to the brief description of his life and works, Tanizaki is regarded as “one of the giants of modern Japanese fiction.” The particular essay that I read “derives from renga, the long Japanese poems chains composed of linked haiku or tenka”. This made little sense to me at the time, as the next sentence added, “Just when you think the essay is coming to a standstill, it hooks onto another metaphor, and another resonance.” The essay starts on discussing how electrical appliances cannot harmonize with Japanese rooms, then moving onto the subject of toilets. Although it was a bizarre topic, the ideas were connected, and slowly I saw what the description meant by coming from tenga. The essay went on to discuss other parts of Japanese culture, life and food. By the end of the essay, Tanizaki touched on many objects, in which he connected to various aspects of life. Tanizaki threw a bunch of things together, and like a string, the metaphors all meshed, creating a beautifully written piece. My favorite part of the essay was when Tanizaki talks about food. He starts off talking about soup, then yokan, and finally dark and light-colored food. On the suface, it appears that Tanizaki is talking about merely food, but on a closer inspection, Tanizaki could also be talking about life. (He’s a genius. No doubt about it.) He writes, “with Japanese food, a brightly lighted room and shining tableware cut the appetite in half” and similarly, “white foods too- white miso, bean curd [tofu], fish cake, the white meat of fish- lose much of their beauty in a bright room.” Tanizaki may be talking about eating foods in dimly lit places, but in the last line, he writes, “Our looking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness.” Beauty cannot be seen without ugliness, and light could not exist without darkness.

So, I thought after reading the essays, that my summer wasn’t going to be so bad after all. The essays were wonderful, and I liked reading them. (NERD. I’m such a nerd.) 


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