BOOK REVIEW by Vikram Karve
[A book that enriched my life and taught me the art of living]
Title: THE IMPORTANCE OF LIVING
Author: LIN YUTANG
Published: 1937 ( New York , USA ), Indian Edition: 1960 JAICO Mumbai
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 go to sleep, I open this book to any random page, and read on till I drift off to blissful idyllic sleep.
The name of this book, which has had a profound defining 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. The scholar's 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 of Benares invited the scholar to deliver a discourse on the Bhagavad 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 Bhagavad Gita with full concentration 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 the next day to 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.
Once 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 and days till the scholar realized how ignorant he was and how much more there was to learn from the Bhagavad Gita that he gave up the idea of delivering the discourse and decided to totally devote his entire efforts to the study of the Bhagavad Gita.
Days passed, and suddenly 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 Bhagavad 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 special different philosophical 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. Leisure enables you to realize the highest value of your time!
Tell me, why do you work?Is it for job satisfaction, "on the job"? Or is it to earn money "on the job" so that you can enjoy satisfaction "off the job", to enhance the quality of your free time? 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 our 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, and deduces that only he who is not wanted by the public can be a carefree individual. It is true isn’t it – only he who is a carefree individual can be a happy human being? Lin Yutang deliberates delightfully on his philosophical view: “Nothing matters 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 vital, not the feast. This delightful treatise gives us insights on how to develop, enhance and refine our appetites in order to enjoy various facets of living. The capacity for true enjoyment comes from an inner richness in a man who loves the simple ways of life. There is always plenty of life to enjoy for a man who is determined to enjoy it.
You may find some of the author’s views a bit passé – “mere relationship between man and woman is not sufficient; the relationship must result in babies, or it is incomplete” or “woman reaches her noblest status only as a mother, and that wife who by choice refuses to become a mother… loses a great part of her dignity…and stands in danger of becoming a plaything” or “a natural man loves his children, but a cultured man loves his parents” or “The art of attaining happiness consists in keeping your pleasures mild” or “It is against the will of God to eat delicate food hastily, to pass gorgeous views hurriedly, to express deep sentiments superficially, to pass a beautiful day steeped in food and drink, and to enjoy your wealth steeped in luxuries” – think about it, reflect a bit, and you may detect a iota of authenticity in these nuggets.
The book has fourteen chapters, embellished with epigrams, teaching stories, ancient wisdom and wit, on various aspects of the importance and enjoyment of living and once you start reading it this book is indeed so engrossing that it is truly unputdownable. The Importance of Loafing, The Enjoyment of the Home, Nature, Travel, Culture, The Arts of Thinking, Eating, Reading , Writing, Loving, Happiness – the range and variety of topics covered indeed make fascinating reading.
Reading is the greatest of all joys. Extolling the virtues and charm of reading, Lin Yutang says: “The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world…the reader is always carried away into a world of thought and reflection”, and on writing: “a writing is always better when it is one’s own, and a woman is always lovelier when she is somebody else’s wife”. “He who is afraid to use an ‘I’ in his writing will never make a good writer” and “anyone who reads a book with a sense of obligation does not understand the art of reading… to be thoroughly enjoyed, reading must be entirely spontaneous…you can leave the books that you don’t like alone, and let other people read them!”
The best way to read The Importance of Living is to open any page and 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! A true traveler is always a vagabond – he travels to see nothing, to see nobody, with plenty of time and leisure, with the true motive to become lost and unknown.
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?
If your answer to any of the questions is “Yes”, then please don’t bother to read this book now, as you may be too “busy” in your own competitive rat race of your own making and probably you don’t have any time to “waste” on anything that doesn’t give you something tangible in return – a solid material ROI (Return on Investment) for investing your valuable time and effort reading this book. But please don’t forget to read The Importance of Living after you’ve burned out, had a heart attack or suffered a nervous breakdown – when you’ll have plenty of time and, perhaps, the inclination, to reflect, contemplate, and delve more deeply upon the more intangible philosophical aspects of life – and ruminate on how you could have obviated that stressful burn-out, agonizing heart attack or traumatic nervous breakdown. Here’s Lin Yutang’s take: “Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.”
If you are happy here and now, wherever you are, in whatever state you are, and you are truly content with what you have, you 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 happy and carefree philosophy of life relevant today?
Why don’t you give it a try and see for yourself.Slowly, unhurriedly, relaxingly, thoroughly, do peruse this classic masterpiece, absorb the witty wisdom, reflect, try out, practice and incorporate whatever appeals to you in your daily life, ruminate, experiment, enjoy yourself, have a laugh, change your lifestyle, enhance your quality of life, elevate your plane of living, and maybe your entire way of life may change forever.
Dear Reader, I commend this delightfully illuminating book. Though enunciated with a touch of humor, the thoughts are profound. Do get a copy of The Importance of Living and read it leisurely. I’m sure you will find a copy at your nearest bookstore or in your library. And don’t forget to tell us how you liked it, and whether it changed your way of life for the better.
Copyright © Vikram Karve 2008
Vikram Karve has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.
Book Review of THE IMPORTANCE OF LIVING by LIN YUTANG
[A book that enriched my life and taught me the art of living]
Reviewed by VIKRAM KARVE