THE ART OF LIVING
Book Review of THE IMPORTANCE OF LIVING by LIN YUTANG
[A book that shaped my life and taught me the art of living]
There is one book you will never find in my bookcase – you will always find it by my bedside near my pillow. At night, just before I sleep, I open the book to any random page, and read till I drift off to blissful idyllic sleep.
The name of this book, which has had a profound effect on me, maybe even subconsciously shaped my philosophy of life, is called: The Importance of Living written in 1937 by the Chinese philosopher Lin Yutang.
But first, let me tell you a story, maybe apocryphal, about a scholar who had thoroughly studied the Bhagavad Gita for many years, considered himself an expert, traveled far and wide delivering discourses on the teachings of the Gita and was widely acknowledged as an authority on the subject. His ultimate desire was to deliver a discourse on the Bhagavad Gita at Benares, which was the sanctum sanctorum of learning. So he went to Benares, and impressed by the scholar’s erudition and fame the king invited him to deliver a discourse on the Gita in his court. All the wise men of Benares assembled to hear the Scholar, but just as he began to speak the king interrupted him and told him to read the Bhagavad Gita one more time in the evening and deliver his discourse the next day. The Scholar was furious but he had no choice but to comply with the king’s wishes.
As he read the Gita in the evening, he realized some new meanings and updated his speech accordingly. Next day the same thing happened – the moment the scholar began to speak the king interrupted him and told him to read the Gita once more and then come and give his lecture. And again as the Scholar read the Gita he comprehended some new wisdom – something he hadn’t perceived before. So he incorporated his new findings and proceeded to deliver his talk.
Again the same thing happened – the king interrupted him and told him to read the Gita once more before he gave his discourse. And again the scholar discovered some new wisdom in the Gita. This cycle went on for days till the scholar realized how ignorant he was and how much more there was to learn form the Gita that he gave up the idea of delivering the discourse and decided to devote himself completely to the study of the Bhagavad Gita.
And the one morning, when the scholar was deeply immersed in his study, the king went to the scholar’s house, sat before him with folded hands and requested the scholar to enlighten him about the teachings of the Gita.
It’s the same with any great book. Every time you read it, something new emerges, and you realize you have so much more to learn from it. I have read The Importance of Living innumerable times, again and again, with renewed pleasure, and every time I read it I imbibe a different flavor, and grasp new wisdom, which delves on all aspects of the art of living, and I have realized that there is more significance and value in Lin Yutang’s magnum opus than I am capable of appreciating. So let me not be as presumptuous as to attempt to evaluate this classic treatise – I’ll just try to gently pilot you along in random vignettes to give you a flavor of this delightful philosophical gem.
Let’s open this delightful book to a few random pages, read some lines to give you glimpse into the wisdom on the art of living contained in this masterpiece. In the section on Leisure and Friendship are these words: “Only those who take leisurely what the people of the world are busy about can be busy about what the people of the world take leisurely”. Reflect on this, let these words perambulate in your mind for some time. There is nothing that man enjoys more than leisure. The highest value of time is when you are doing what you love and want to do. During leisure you are free to choose what you want to do and enjoy doing. So leisure enables you realize the highest value of your time!
Tell me, why do you work? Is it for job satisfaction? Or is it to earn money so that you can enjoy satisfaction off the job? In fact, most of us work for our leisure, because there is nothing we enjoy more than leisure. Elaborating on a theory of leisure the book says: “Time is useful because it is not being used. Leisure is like unoccupied floor space in a room…it is that unoccupied space which makes a room habitable, as it is our leisure hours which make life endurable”. Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.
Enunciating the distinction between Buddhism and Taoism: “The goal of the Buddhist is that he shall not want anything, while the goal of the Taoist is that he shall not be wanted at all”, the author describes the tremendous advantages of obscurity, deduces that only he who is not wanted by the public can be a carefree individual, and only he who is a carefree individual can be a happy human being and concludes with a philosophy: “Nothing matter to a man who says nothing matters”.
“How are we to live? How shall we enjoy life, and who can best enjoy life?” The feast of life is before us; the only question is what appetite we have for it. The appetite is the thing, and not the feast. The book has fourteen chapters on various facets of the importance and enjoyment of living and once you start reading it is unputdownable. The Importance of Loafing, The Enjoyment of the Home, Nature, Travel, Culture, The Art of Thinking, Eating, Reading, Writing – the range and variety of topics covered indeed make fascinating reading.
The best way to read this book is to browse whatever appeals to you, randomly, in an unstructured and haphazard manner. Think of yourself as a traveler in the philosophical or spiritual domain. The essence of travel is to have no destination. A good traveler is one who does not know where he is going to; a perfect traveler does not know where he came from!
Are you the ambitious competitive go-getter obsessed with an overpowering desire for achieving quick success – craving for power, wealth, fame, and the status and money-oriented aspects of life? Do you value material possessions more than peace of mind? Is external achievement more important than inner tranquility? Then don’t read this book now, as you may be too “busy” in the competitive rat race and don’t have any time to “waste” on anything that doesn’t give you something tangible in return. Read The Importance of Living after you’ve burned out, had a heart attack or nervous breakdown – when you’ll have plenty of time and, perhaps, the inclination to reflect, contemplate and delve upon the more intangible philosophical aspects of life.
But if you are happy where you are and content with what you have, place living above thinking, and are interested in savoring the feast of life and its joys, then this witty philosophical treatise on the art of living in its entirety is the book for you. The Importance of Living presents an uncomplicated approach to living life to its fullest in today's rapidly changing, fast paced, competitive, ambition dominated, money and status oriented, commercialized world, enabling each one of us to enjoy inner peace and happiness.
Sometimes, it is a great pity to read a good book too early in life. The first impression is the one that counts. Young people should be careful in their reading, as old people in eating their food. They should not eat too much. They should chew it well. Like you should eat gourmet food only when you are ready for it, you should read a good book only when you are ready for it. Mature wisdom cannot be appreciated until one becomes mature.
But The Importance of Living is a book for all ages. Of 1937 vintage, an ancestor and precursor of modern "self-help" books, it is a delightful philosophical treatise, which advocates a humorous and vagabond attitude towards life and deals with a variety of topics encompassing the art of living. Is such a philosophy of life relevant today? Read the book, try out and practice whatever appeals to you in your daily life, experiment, enjoy yourself, elevate your plane of living, and maybe your entire way of life may change forever.