I have imposed a ban on buying books at the moment, due to the increasing stack of unread books on my bookshelf and the need to tighten the purse strings at the moment. There are exceptions, of course, just like any good rule. I will still buy the books for the book club (unless I can get hold of them quickly from my local library), and I can still enjoy browsing bookshop shelves for inspiration when a slightly more flush time reveals itself.
I spotted this little gem on the shelves of my local library. Kakuzo Okakura’s Book of Tea is an interesting history of the origins of tea, tea-drinking rituals and practices. I am a big tea-drinker so I loved the description of the benefits of tea, that it ‘was highly prized for possessing the virtues of relieving fatigue, delighting the soul, strengthening the will, and repairing the eyesight.‘ A cup of tea does wonders in my opinion and considering that it is such a big part of our lives now makes it all the more strange to realise that tea met with some opposition when it was first introduced in the 17th century! Some gentleman called Jonas Hanway described how in his opinion ‘men seemed to lose their stature and comeliness, women their beauty through the use of tea‘. I’m not sure what his credentials were but it is funny to see how social opinion changes over time.
There are some interesting anecdotes in this book and if you are a tea-lover as I am then I don’t doubt its appeal. I was surprised and somewhat in awe of the precision and importance of the tea ceremony described in China, so revered that it needed its own building. Although I found some of the discussion of Zenism, art appreciation and aesthetics a little difficult to absorb, the descriptions of tea, how it was elevated almost to a religious practice and an art form, a celebration of life just like the everyday things that are celebrated in Zenism.
I love the portrait that Samuel Johnson draws of himself as ‘a hardened and shameless tea-drinker, who for twenty years diluted his meals with only the infusion of the fascinating plant; who with tea amused the evening, with tea solaced the midnight, and with tea welcomed the morning.’ This is how I like to see myself, with a cup of tea in hand, taking on the day and its challenges.
It is now common to think of tea as having restorative benefits and it is often the first port of call when someone has been faced with some form of emotional or even physical distress. Okakuro describes how ‘Wangyucheng eulogised tea as ‘flooding his soul like a direct appeal, that its delicate bitterness reminded him of the after-taste of a good counsel’’ and I think this is quite fitting. I often find that a cup of tea helps me to order my thoughts and deal with a task that had been troubling me, or brings relief when I am feeling weary.
Apologies if you’re not a fan of tea…this review seems to be getting a little gushing in its adulation of the beverage… However, some of the descriptions in the book are beautiful. I thought this description of boiling water particularly pretty –
‘There are three stages of boiling: the first boil is when the little bubbles like the eye of fishes swim on the surface; the second boil is when the bubbles are like crystal beads rolling in a fountain; the third boil is when the billows surge wildly in the kettle.’
It’s something I have never really thought of before, how to describe boiling, it seems like something so inconsequential but it has made me take more notice of these small things.
I also loved the chapter on flowers and the descriptions of their sacrifices and characters. Okakura addresses them:
‘Tell me, gentle flowers, teardrops of the stars, standing in the garden, nodding your heads to the bees as they sing of the dews and the sunbeams, are you aware of the fearful doom that awaits you? Dream on, sway and frolic while you may in the gentle breezes of summer. To-morrow a ruthless hand will close around your throats.’
It is so sad and so beautiful at the same time, our appreciation and destruction of flowers, one rarely coming without the other in a human need to hold and keep something of beauty, even if it will not last. The closing chapter sits almost like a short story on the theme, called ‘The Last Tea of Rikiu’, and it was exquisitely written, a welcome note to finish what is quite a charming book.