Book: The Importance of Living

Practical Handbook for Life. Soul Food.
471 pages, ★★★★★

The Importance of Living should be read at leisure with 耐泡 tea (any tea that rebrews well), a large pad and pens, with nothing to do and nowhere to go for two days. Get very comfortable. Put everything you need within reach.

For tea, I recommend a very fragrant, full-bodied black tea (红茶) with a strong, sour, fruity after-sweetness (回甘) such as Jinjumei (金骏眉); because it pleases your tongue, body and soul in a manner that builds after being sipped. Or try the redder, high-Qi (气) end of the Oolong spectrum, such as Big Red Robe (大红袍), which is designed to be inhaled rather than drunk. Both teas would work equally well. Reading this, coupled with the tea, feels like being hugged.

Then curl up with this book, a heavy blanket and a large, ring-bound notepad. Sip this book like you would chicken soup or a hot lemon drink when you’re ill. You’re not ill, but you’ll feel as cured and rejuvenated in two days’ time as if you were. It’s a great excuse to stay home.

However, that soup gets filling. Take breaks every so often to make sure you’re taking everything in (by “filling”, I mean that it’s full of beautiful, palatable, digestible answers and doesn’t ask the reader many questions).

The Importance of Living is a detailed and healthy definition of a good life well-lived. It’s laced with Chinese history, culture and language (with explanatory footnotes) and written with childlike amazement at every simple aspect of life. It’s a childlike re-analysis of everything you do. He philosophises about:

  • how tall your chair should be
  • how to drink tea
  • how to categorise national stereotypes
  • with whom to smoke tobacco
  • why not to care too much about money
  • the ideal school curriculum
  • and hundreds of other life-tips

It makes a delightful and reassuring read. His thoughts are peppered with supporting quotes from ancient Chinese scholars such as Mencius and Confucius, and the book’s both beautifully-written and logically-structured. On the first read, I recommend making detailed notes. See these two mind maps on my wonderfully red bed below.

Then try to familiarise yourself with The Importance of Living as you would a Bible, a reference manual or a handbook. Familiarise yourself with the book’s layout so you can look up answers to life’s questions later.

Each reader will find musings in this book relevant to his or her own life. So I was delighted to read that Confucius had described exactly how I feel about my work as an educator in Beijing:

“Confucius seemed to have felt that scholarship without thinking was more dangerous than thinking unbacked by scholarship” — Lin Yutang 林语堂

“Thinking without learning makes one flighty, but learning without thinking is a disaster” — Confucius

Lin Yutang then talks almost prophetically about the state of Chinese education today when he asks:

“Why are there school marks and diplomas, and how did it come about that the mark and the diploma have, in the student’s mind, come to take the place of the true aim of education?” — Lin Yutang 林语堂

I blogged about “following passions” and “eliminating credentialism” some time ago, so this passage on page 390 particularly moved me. Read the middle paragraph in the picture below (starting with “Confucius”). It’s exactly what I’ve been saying on WordPress…

The book is full of gems like this, but you’ll have to read it and find your own. Give this book unrestricted access to your brain. This book requires that you reflect on every minute aspect of your daily life. In terms of living books (and not just reading them), The Importance of Living would make an ideal sequel to Fight Club because it builds a highly-refined life from scratch, like a beautifully-written, logically-structured instruction manual.

This book is what the terrible Instant Turnaround could have been if it were written by a refined, cultured, spiritual (and Chinese) author; and not by a bored Western office-worker with all the imagination drained out of his corporate monkey-skull. Everyone should put aside their moneymaking trivialities for two days and read this book on the couch. ★★★★★

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