Sunday, October 30, 2011

A well-steeped new 'Book of Tea'

I have as many copies of The Book of Tea as I do the Tao Te Ching, which is saying something. My favorite of the former is a tiny pocket version, which has been a handy companion on the train or waiting in various queues. It's always a great read because really, as James Norwood Pratt quotes an acquaintance in a review of a new edition, "The Book of Tea is not about tea."

Pratt reviews the new Benjamin Press edition of the book in the current issue of Tea Time magazine. I recently saw a copy myself, and it's a fine book not only on its century-old merits but mostly because of the introduction by noted tea writer Bruce Richardson.

Richardson provides more biographical detail on The Book of Tea's author, Okakura Kakuzo, than I've seen before, and artfully links his life story as a mediator of East-West cultures to the overall opening of the East at the end of the 19th century. The scholarship is impressive, including crucial details of the Japanese exhibits at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The picture that emerges of this Japanese son trying to explain his culture to Americans is poignant and moving. It deepends the experience of reading his text on tea — and everything else it's about.

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