With all the talk about internet disruption and the death of literature, it’s easy to forget how beautiful books can be. And what a truly remarkable and weighty thing a well-created tome is, no matter its length or size.
A new Woodstock publishing entity, Wapner & Brent Books, has just come out with a new version of the Chinese master Laozi’s great work, on which the idea of Taoism is based. Dao De Jing: The United Version is more than just a new translation and presentation. It’s a work that while as slim as haiku in book form, carries heft and an ability to reverberate far beyond itself.
The work is translated by the Chinese religious scholar Yang Peng, a researcher at the Harvard University Asia Center, with a short but succinct translation that sets a studied yet instantly involving tone that makes the 2500 words at hand sublimely contemporary.
“The Dao refers to the original source and creator of all things, the source of the natural law of checks and balances, and the power that gives and supports life,” reads the intro in a section that also includes the need to use a word more appropriate than the oft-used ‘Tao,’ even if it can be seen as more correct that Dao’s literal translation as ‘way.’ “Laozi used the name Dao and the word Great to describe the original source and the natural order of the universe…Names of words have no essence on their own; rather, they are guides pointing to reality.”
Points are made about relationships between key words involving other concepts, such as sky above or heaven, as well as how newer found texts have changed thoughts about Laozi’s intentions, and what we’ve come to accept as the Dao, over time. There’s even a nod to the importance of context in understanding elements shaped by past political and religious traditions, rather than our own view of the same. This all comes as a breath of fresh air in its simple use of rhetorical argument, its underlying clarity, as well as an unspoken affinity between the lessons to be learned here, and those needing to be learned in the disruptions of our daily news.
In the final rounds, though, it’s the clarity of Laozi’s slowly evolving chapters of understanding, his ageless mixture of metaphor and clear observation and prescription, that makes this work shine.
“He who governs the country with the rule of the Dao does not enlighten the virtue of the people with rituals but lets them simply follow their own natural ways. People become difficult to govern when the ruler thinks he is wise,” for example, sings to now. As does, later, “The Dao of Tian is like drawing a bow. Aiming the bow higher you make the target lower. Aiming the bow lower you make the target higher. You reduce the surplus and add to what is lacking. So the Dao of Tian reduces the surplus and adds to what is lacking. The way of man is different from that…”
Simple quotes, while highlighting the editing prowess of the many who have worked with the translator here (including Woodstockers Sam Truitt and Ron Brent, involved in the book’s publication), do not capture the way the lines are broken on the page, typeset, printed on a page, and followed by a section of pure Chinese print. Or the simple means by which the book works in an easily-handled hardcover format beautifully designed by Susan Quasha, and made to last the way a Bible, a Constitution, a Little Red Book or a City Lights’ Howl carries with one.
I, personally, have tended to pick up what I’d long considered as Tao in tidbits. This feels different, lending itself to armchair reading, but also bedside and even glove box reference.
Dao De Jing: The United Version is the first publishing endeavor of this new effort that’s part of Kenneth Wapner and Ron Brent’s Asia Arts & Culture, LLC, which is aimed at introducing spiritual, cultural and artistic traditions many of us here in the West have overlooked, or misunderstood, along with a wealth of new voices working in these areas.
Wapner is a book developer and editor who has written for this paper over the years; Brent is an entrepreneur and consultant with deep spiritual roots. Both live in Woodstock as does Truitt, whose Institute for Publishing Arts, Inc., which he manages for George and Susan Quasha, helped with the new Wapner & Brent Books publishing project.
What they’ve inaugurated their efforts with is a great example of something timelessly bookish, and yet also beyond literature in its aim and effect. Bravo.