Looking Back. . . With Wonder
The Other China: A Review of "Kosher Chinese," by Michael Levy

Saturday Afternoon, Review.

While I don't expect you to be interested in how I spent my Saturday afternoon, sometimes we write ("we" may sound expansive, as most people do not write) about things as a form of inner dialogue.  In this case, it's my way of deciding if the time reading the Review Section of the Wall Street Journal for two hours was worthwhile or merely an escape from other more mundane and taxing needs which beckon, like cleaning the attic, organizing the garage, or paying the bills, none of which excite me and all of which require endless difficult decisions, like what to keep, what to throw out, and how to organize what is kept, or, in the case of bills, remind me how distressingly quickly money earned becomes money spent, my pocket a mere conduit, an overflowing Mississippi for interstate commerce.  I tire even to speak of these tasks.

So, let me tell you about what I read.  This caveat first: While I am not stupid, I am lacking in genius and not particularly well-schooled in literature or books, for all my supposed learning.  I'm not telling you of what I read to impress you.  I read because I am (a) lazy (I don't want to do menial work), (b) can sit down while I am doing it, (c) like to associate with smarter people in print, though I doubt I would be able to carry on a satisfying conversation with any of them in person, and (d) will likely never read most of the books reviewed but can act like I have as I have read them by virtue of having read the Cliffnote version of them (the review, that is).

Seriously, while all the above is true, there are good reasons for spending two hours with a review of books, particularly one as good as the WSJ Review.  Here are a few:

Diversity is a hot topic in workplaces, in politics, and on college campuses.  But that's a shadow of the kind of intellectual diversity represented here in different topic, tone, and style, all in a concentrated two hours.  It's stimulating, like spending 10 minutes listening to 12 different speakers, each an expert on their topic. I moved from how temperature influences behavior to a book on the passing of the WWII generation to Davy Crockett to Berlin in 1961 to the historic MGM movie studios to liberal David Mamet's explanation of his conversion to conservatism.  Dazzled, I wonder at the breadth and depth of what there is to know, the thimble-sized grip I have on reality, and the reassuring knowledge of and hold on God has of me.

Humanity.  Reading is also deeply humanizing.  Whether fiction or non-fiction, narrative history or fantasy, books are primarily about people.  Even when describing the history of water ("Any Drop to Drink"), the story still revolves around humans and water, their personalities and decisions, both bad and good.  Even the Berlin Wall may have come about because John F. Kennedy had a bad day (seriously) ("When Kennedy Blinked").  And the personal stories of some the last WWII veterans recounted by author James Hornfischer let me peer into a world of which I know nothing.  They make me ask "what would I do in such circumstances," or "would I have made a better decision?"  They make me appreciate the deeply human nature of life and remind me that every generalization or objectification of reality will inevitably obscure the individual.  Sometimes we see better when we focus on one life, on one person made in the image of God.

Sound.  I don't read with any music on, even instrumental background music, as I do not want to mask the sound of the words I am reading.  Not that I read aloud.  I once read the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy aloud to my then seven-year old son, 30 minutes at a time, and while there are definite benefits to hearing the spoken words, I want to hear the words internally.  Every good writer (and there are many in the WSJ Review) has an inimitable style, and I enjoy hearing all these voices end-to-end like an IPod on shuffle (to use a crude analogy).  In fact, it's interesting just to compare the way in which different writers end their essays, from Andrew Klaven's quip that conservative convert David Mamet's book "might make an amusingly irritating present for a liberal friend," to Joe Queenan's closer to a humorous article about cheapskates ("We are puzzled by these people.  We are chagrined by these people.  We'd like to stick a stamp on their butts and ship them to Timbuktu or the South Pole or Hell. . . I'll cover the postage.")  Don't you like the way that sounds?  Quite beyond or in spite of content, reading can simply be pleasurable, and the great thing about a review, like the World Book Encyclopedia I perused as a kid, is that if a topic grows tedious or tiresome (which I confess is rarely the case), there's always another voice in the room.  Move on.

Touch.  Oh, the tactile pull of newsprint!  I won't belabor the book/e-reader argument, but undoubtedly there is something lost in not having newsprint.  Someone actually thought enough of these writers to PRINT them.  Holding it in my hands, it seems more substantial than anything on internet or e-reader.  After all, anyone (even me) can write on the internet.  And where can you find an e-reader as large as newspaper?  Nowhere, of course.  The world of print is getting smaller and less substantial, a picture of a book rather than a book (literally and metaphorically).  Also, think of what you can do with newsprint, like wash windows, wrap presents, start fires, and beat fearsome dogs over the head.  Try any of that with an e-reader!

Well, so much for another Saturday afternoon.  I just walked downstairs and threw my copy of the WSJ Review in the recycle bin.  I feel a tad bad about that, like I have dishonored the authors.  And yet they can feel good about the fact that my carbon footprint is a little smaller by this act, I'm told.

Maybe I should have cleaned the attic.