Short books: digestible in one sitting (think a cup of coffee or, in this instance, the final hour before school pick-up) and self-contained. The idea that few(er) words still pack a big punch. Increasingly, short books and series of short books are becoming more popular, their bite-sized format appealing to readers, writers and publishers alike.
“How did Ibn Battuta support himself on his travels?”, asked a student once. It’s hard to imagine a world where erudition and charm enable a man to travel the world as the honored guests of kings and scholars as well as humble folk, but that is how things worked in those days. It also helped to be able to sleep as soundly in silk sheets as on a crofter’s mat. A world like that, a man like that, does not belong to a remote past, but it may belong to a past that is fading fast. Tales from the Life is an outpouring of praise and sadness on the occasion of the death earlier this year of Bruce Wannell, the last great English traveler in the Orient.
In his introduction to Inaka: Portraits of Life in Rural Japan, editor John Grant Ross promises this collection will not play into “wacky” Japan. There will be no treatises on love motels, maid cafes, or parades of fertility idols. Instead, Ross sets out to show rural Japan in all its splendor.
The world-weary Giuseppe Lampedusa introduced us to the cynical formulation “for everything to remain as it was, it’s necessary for everything to change.” Empires rise and fall, sometimes swiftly. The papers in Short Term Empires in World History, delivered at a conference held in Germany in 2017, raise the issue of continuity and discontinuity in the context of characterizing empires.
Back in the day, whenever one was in a waiting room or vestibule, one would likely come across a copy of “Reader’s Digest”, which would include a diverse selection of pieces, often abridged, often extracts from elsewhere: easy reading, something to interest anyone and everyone, thought-provoking but not enough to require too much mental exertion.
The Tantra is an Indian esoteric doctrine of mysticism spanning Hinduism and Buddhism. It incorporates not just the spiritual but also the sexual ways of becoming one with the divine. While the Indian poets belonging to the devotional bhakti movement have written about the possibilities of the union with God with a hint of eroticism, this extreme route of using sexual practice to know everything, including the ultimate divinity, has remained unexplored.
Mention Japanese film and responses will likely range from the 1950s Golden Age to today’s panoply of genre movies. The variance has less to do with conflicts between artistry and populism—even Kurosawa famously trafficked in samurai—than with context and perspective. International acclaim, whether past or present, offers only a limited vista on a country’s internal cinematic life; to make full sense of Japan’s giant dinosaurs, yakuza gangsters and animated princesses, you need someone well-placed on the ground. Someone like Mark Schilling.