In the introduction to her translation of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Ursula K. Le Guin writes:
The first Tao Te Ching I ever saw was the Paul Carus edition of 1898, bound in yellow clothe stamped with blue and red Chinese designs and characters. It was a venerable object of mystery, which I soon investigated, and found more fascinating inside than out. The book was my father’s; he read in it often. Once I saw him making notes from it and asked what he was doing. He said he was marking which chapters he’d like to have read at his funeral.
A few years ago, when you could actually shop in a bookstore and talk to strangers, an elderly woman walked up to me in a Half Price Books and said she had nothing to read.
“Well, you’re in the right place,” I said.
We got to talking and discovered we both enjoyed poetry. She said a lot of people in her life were dying so she was reading Lao Tzu.
“Lao Tzu?” I said. “I love Lao Tzu.”
We walked together from section to section. I browsed; she talked. At one point she recited some Robert Frost and some Basho:
Eventually we said our goodbyes. I think of this woman now when I pick up the Tao Te Ching, and I wonder how she’s doing.
“It is the most lovable of all the great religious texts,” Le Guin writes. “Funny, keen, kind, modest, indestructibly outrageous, and inexhaustibly refreshing. Of all the deep springs, this is the purest water. To me, it is also the deepest spring.”
Every poem seems to me a subtweet of our crooked world and our lousy, corrupt leaders.
And Le Guin’s footnotes are perfect:
If you read Le Guin after reading this translation, you realize how many lines from her books could’ve been lifted from Lao Tzu.
This sentence from The Left Hand of Darkness, for example:
“To learn which questions are unanswerable, and not to answer them: this skill is most needful in times of stress and darkness.”
Or this one:
“The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
Le Guin’s version of the Tao Te Ching (more excerpts over at Brain Pickings) was a great solace to me for the past four years, so much so that I put it in the recommended reading for Keep Going. And there’s a fairly new reprinting, which means it’s pretty easy to find.
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Saturday Friday* I put one of my favorite books on the Bookshelf. To see more of my favorite books, check out my reading years.
* In the interest of preserving my sanity, I’m cutting my daily blogging, and hopefully all my online time, down to Monday-Friday.