Monday, December 29, 2008

Recommended Reading

43. Recommended Reading

Graduate school can involve a lot of reading. I remember one semester in particular in which the class list of recommended books available at the University Bookstore had a total price tag of three hundred and sixty dollars. We confronted our teacher with this outrageous fact and he responded rather benignly, “I don’t actually expect anyone to buy them all. But they’re all worth owning.” We each went back and bought what we could afford. (I don’t know how many the bookstore wound up returning to the distributor, but they must have found our teacher’s methods quite disappointing, if not infuriating.)
Nonetheless, I did come out of graduate school with a lot of books on Ceramics and received even more when my mother-in-law, a former potter, gave me her library during a move to a smaller house. I love them all and still use them for reference questions or just to fill idle moments with pictures of good pots. But I haven’t actually read them all. A horrible confession, I know.
I’m willing to make such a dire admission in part because I know that I’m not alone in this flaw. A lot of potters own books they haven’t read. In some cases, the writing itself is to blame. In others, the subjects covered are only partially of interest and we tend to only pay attention to those things that bear an immediate importance to our own work.
So be it. I don’t expect the readers of my essays to be any different. Some essays will seem to be a waste of time, others (I most fervently hope) will provide the insight or spark to be valuable for years to come. Of course, no one can predict the preferences of other people.
I do have two recommendations to make here on the subject of reading. The first is just to make time for reading in your day, even if it’s only a few minutes every night before you drop off to sleep. This is not just because my mother is a librarian. Reading stirs up your brain in ways that movies and TV don’t. Thanks to public library books on tape, I can also “read” while in the studio making pots. In fact, thanks to unabridged literature on cassette tapes the potential exists for artists and long haul truck drivers to become the best read people in our culture. What an opportunity to shatter stereotypes!
My second recommendation is of a particular book and I do so knowing that you’d never encounter it otherwise and that it doesn’t involve playing favorites among the many fine ceramics books available today. The book is called, “Musashi,” by the Japanese novelist Eiji Yoshikawa. It briefly admires the work of potters, but it chiefly follows the twisting paths to self-improvement of Minamoto Musashi and a half dozen other characters. Musashi, the finest swordsman in the history of Japan, and himself the author of, “The Book of Five Rings,” marvelously illustrates the demands for discipline and decision-making required equally of warrior and artist.
The superbly produced hardbound edition runs to 970 pages. (You must learn to conquer your fear.) It was originally published in a serial format, I believe by the Sunday Tokyo Times, and the stories move along with many dramatic twists and surprises. Certainly the students of mine who have read the book have been improved, not only by the stories told but by the confidence they gain in being able to say, “done,” to a volume of such majesty. It is indeed an achievement.
I leave you with the following quoted passage from page 926.

“I wouldn’t call Musashi ordinary.”
“But he is. That’s what’s extraordinary about him. He’s not content with relying on whatever natural gifts he may have. Knowing he’s ordinary, he’s always trying to improve himself. No one appreciates the agonizing effort he’s had to make. Now that his years of training have yielded such spectacular results, everybody’s talking about his ‘god-given talent.’ That’s how men who don’t try very hard comfort themselves.”

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