When a Kindle Won’t Do: The Folio Society’s New Asia Volumes


It’s always been a pleasure to handle a Folio Society book, and having three of them at one time, all on Asian themes, was even better.

The Folio Society, based in London, and which has been around since 1947, reprints “classic” books, often in large (but not always folio-size) format, with high-quality binding and design, and often with specially commissioned artwork. The Folio Society epitomizes the highest quality in book production, which includes slipcases and acid-free paper, and all three volumes have delivered it in spades; for them a book matters. They are to be highly commended, too, for their judicious choice of books that will last for reissuing in the Folio Society format. Folio Society books can be expensive, but if you are a reader who loves beautifully-produced books which will remain pristine for years, and you have a few favorite titles to which you often return, they are well worth the price.

All three of these books should be in every library whose owner enjoys Asian material.

I decided to review the three together because two of them, Peter Mathiessen’s Snow Leopard (1978) and Isabella Bird’s Yangtze Valley and Beyond (1899) are already quite well-known, and the newest one has been in print for some thirty years already. Mathiessen’s book comes with an introduction by his son Alex, a well-known environmentalist, and Bird’s is introduced by Dervla Murphy, no mean traveler herself, as many readers will know. The “odd” one out is Royall Tyler’s translation of Japanese Tales, originally issued in 1987, which is not a travel book, and may not be as familiar to readers.

All three are distinguished by their design and illustrations, both of which perfectly complement the narratives themselves, and, in the case of Bird’s albumen print photographs, really come to life in the panoramic views supported by the large-format book. These books look splendid, they handle beautifully, and yes, they even smell nice; I am one of those people who likes the scent of books, to involve as many senses as possible when I am reading (something one can never do with electronic readers like Kindle, with its cold glare on an impersonal screen and absolutely devoid of tactile pleasure).

The Snow Leopard is the record of a spiritual journey, but it’s also a splendid travel account.

The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen, Alex Matthiessen (intro), George Schalle (photos)
The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen, Alex Matthiessen (intro), George Schalle (photos) (Folio Society, 2018)

Peter Mathiessen’s Snow Leopard is a memoir of a journey to northwestern Nepal he undertook with his friend the zoologist and photographer George Schaller in 1972, quite shortly after the tragic death of Mathiessen’s wife Deborah Love from cancer.

Not unnaturally, the account of the journey is punctuated from time to time with the author’s memories and dreams, suggesting that his trip was, in some way, therapeutic, even cathartic, perhaps a meditation on death as well as life, a marked contrast to the much more scientifically-minded Schaller, whose main reasons for trudging around Nepal just twenty-five miles from the Tibetan border were to find the rare, elusive and endangered snow leopard and study the mating habits of the Tibetan sheep, the bharal. Mathiessen turns the leopard (they do actually find one) into a symbol and for him, at least, the trip evolves from a journey into a quest, perhaps a discovery of the acceptance of death as a part of life or perhaps some quality as equally rare and elusive as the snow leopard itself.

The remote areas of Nepal can be lonely; even in the 1970s, with ever-encroaching modernism, what is most striking is the isolation Mathiessen invokes in the reader: one can almost feel the cold and at one point vicariously experience, for example, what must be the awful sensation of one’s boots, after many hours of walking on rough icy terrain, slowly filling up with blood, the thought of which actually made my own feet tingle as I read.

Snow Leopard 1This raw physicality of the journey is admirably caught in Schaller’s wonderful color photographs, made even more vivid by the large format of the book; you can see the hardship lines as well as the patience and good humor in the faces of the Tibetan porters and guides, and almost feel the thickness of the colorful garments they are wearing to keep out the harshness of the weather. Many of these photographs are here presented for the first time, and the quality of reproduction here is superb, printed by the Folio Society on matte paper, which makes the details so much easier to see, and lends a more natural air to the photographs. The real world is much more matte than glossy!


snl31Much of Mathiessen’s book is meditative in nature, as he explores his relationship to various eastern ways of looking at the world, notably those of Zen Buddhism (his wife was a practitioner and teacher) and Mahayana Buddhism (he cites the Heart Sutra at one point) in its Tibetan form. A better understanding of these teachings, which Mathiessen’s journey encourages, allows him to come to terms with his own mortality as well as with the death of his wife (a recurrent theme in the book), although the process of coping with this possibility, as he explains, had begun much earlier in 1971, when his wife first experienced pain and he invoked the avalokita, or the “divine within”. He tells us “already the Buddha-Being was dissolving, and I tried to convey gratitude, to inform It about D [Deborah],” but, as he continues, he


gave this up after a moment in the happy realisation that nothing was needed, nothing missing, all was already, always, and forever known, that D’s dying, even that, was as it should be.


These thoughts from the past and present meditations were rekindled by the physical presence of the landscape as he watches “the light rise to the peaks.”

For some readers these personal reflections may be a little off-putting; since Mathiessen first published his book, writing of “personal tragedy/ illness” has burgeoned into a popular and pervasive literary genre, along with the “re-discovery” of eastern philosophy and religion. This is not to suggest, however, that Mathiessen is being self-indulgent; it is merely to say that for some the impact of these meditations might be blunted. For Mathiessen himself, the drawn-out tragedy he experienced was in many ways a test of his faith, and a test of Buddhism itself, too: as John Donne once noted, “affliction is a blessing, and no man hath enough of it.” Illness, one’s own or that of someone we love, can sometimes make for great art.

Mathiessen occasionally falls into the old habits of westerners in Tibet… One gets the impression that this part of the world, for westerners, is still a magic place.

The Snow Leopard is the record of a spiritual journey, but it’s also a splendid travel account, and can be read purely in that spirit. Like most travelers, despite his openness and willingness to accept the power of “otherness”, Mathiessen occasionally falls into the old habits of westerners in Tibet and other “wild” places, describing some of his companions as “child-like” at one point and being over-sensitive at not finding the Tibetans quite as mysterious and spiritual as his imagination had pre-constructed them.

One gets the impression that this part of the world, for westerners, is still a magic place, and there is a continual yearning on their part to penetrate through the sheer hardship and ordinariness of daily life in this remote region to find out just what keeps them going. Mathiessen is captivated by the landscape; there are many passages of great lyrical beauty in this book, where even the trivial can be made striking:


black figures on the sky, a doomsday sun, the blaring ice, and this dark bounding thing, looming larger with each carom as it comes: a load is falling… the lunging shape strikes the slope above me and takes off again, filling the sky.


Only at the last moment do we find out how close it comes to flattening the narrator!

Mathiessen, also a novelist, uses the present tense and personification with great effect in this context; the load almost comes alive, taking on a rather sinister purpose as it flies through the air. We feel his apprehension as he (and we, too) watch it coming nearer, getting larger and larger, almost with a sense of wonder, too, not to mention suspense. That is the immediacy of good travel-writing.

Bird was, one may say, a compulsive traveler, someone who by her own admission didn’t like to sit still.

The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, Isabella Bird, Dervla Murphy (intro) (Folio Society, 2018)
The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, Isabella Bird, Dervla Murphy (intro) (Folio Society, 2018)

Isabella Bird (1832-1904), unlike Peter Mathiessen, was not primarily a seeker of spiritual enlightenment, nor was she a naturalist: she was, purely and simply, a traveler. However, she, too, was writing from a background which involved chronic illness, her own included (she suffered from sciatica and other spinal ailments), and the death of people she loved very much.

No-one traveled like Isabella Bird; in addition to two books on China she wrote on Japan, Korea, Persia, Australia, New Zealand, India (where she founded a hospital named for her husband), Malaya, Turkey, Hawai’i and North America, and she usually took her own photographs. She was, one may say, a compulsive traveler, someone who by her own admission didn’t like to sit still; she postponed marriage until she was fifty, and when her husband died a few short years later, she didn’t look back, but set off on her travels again, and was planning a third trip to China the year she died.

This book, written in 1899, belongs to the period following both the deaths of her sister Henrietta (1880) and her husband (1886), and is one of the last travel books she completed. Travel was Bird’s life-blood, and sharing her experiences was equally important to her well-being; with the notable exception of Among the Tibetans her books are often quite weighty tomes, and the impressive Folio Society edition of The Yangtze Valley and Beyond is certainly no exception!

Her earlier books are linked because Bird saw them as very long “letters” to her housebound sister Henrietta, too ill to travel herself, but throughout all her books it’s detail that mattered to Bird, the ability to put a picture before the eyes of the reader as clearly as possible. After her sister’s death Bird continued to write in exactly the same way, as if, perhaps, Henrietta was somehow still there, reading Isabella’s books and accompanying her on her travels. As Horace famously said, “ut pictura poesis”, poetry is like a painting, a verbal rendering of space in its entirety; Isabella, writing prose, wanted Henrietta to see exactly what she saw, too, and her camera was there, ready to place her words in time and space.

ygv_152112892501The photographs which she took, especially the landscapes, back up the writing perfectly, and the ones of people emphasize the smaller scale, human contact of writer or reader with subject. And, as Susan Sontag remarked in On Photography (1973), “the urge to have new experiences is translated into the urge to take photographs: experience seeking a crisis-proof form.”

Furthermore, as Luke Gartlan pointed out in an article on Bird’s use of the camera, the photographs helped legitimize Bird as a professional traveler (as opposed to a female “tourist”) as well as providing concrete “proof” of what she had seen. They are a permanent, unalterable record of what Bird saw in front of her eyes, and readers are invited to see it, too; they range from almost idyllic scenes of landscapes and peaceful temples to the faces and bodies of poverty-stricken Chinese people ravaged by disease, overwork or malnutrition. Readers are not spared anything; there is even a harrowing photograph of a poor man suffering from elephantiasis.

The faces of foreigners also figure in Bird’s book, some of whom have adopted Chinese clothes and have perhaps, as the British used to say in India, “gone native”. Again, the large-size illustrations serve to make these images more vivid and immediate. Bird knew all about the likely impact of her photographs, and even published a book of them shortly before her death, Chinese Pictures: Notes on Photographs Made in China (1900).

The photographs helped legitimize Bird as a professional traveler.

Bird herself, incidentally, dressed in a modified Chinese robe which had large pockets into which she crammed useful articles, including a loaded revolver in case she was accosted by robbers, and indeed, at one point she found herself being pursued by a mob of screaming, xenophobic peasants, but on this occasion didn’t use her weapon.

Isabella Bird was an extremely detailed, thorough observer, and she was not afraid to go into places which many foreigners usually avoided. In Shanghai, for example, she ventured out from the European-style “new” city. The “Model Settlement”, with its Bund (still there), colonial-style buildings, wide, clean streets and its “honest and thoroughly efficient British local administration” to the filthy, squalid, smelly and crowded old city, a place pulsating with ordinary Chinese life and commerce, a place where Bird was really in her element.


Incredible filth, indescribable odours, which ought to receive a strong Anglo-Saxon name, grime, forlornness, bustle, business and discordant noises,


she declares, “characterise Chinese cities”, but none of this stops her exploring and photographing them.

Bird spent seven months traveling up the Yangtze Valley, braving inclement weather, hostile peasants and the most basic of roadside inns, visiting major cities but also stopping in remote villages to observe the lives led by the poorest Chinese. It is probably fair to say that few, if any, Westerners had seen so much of China, and certainly no foreign woman had journeyed so extensively. For readers today, she provides one of the best accounts of a China that has long gone, and yet which at the same time was already showing incipient signs of what Westerners would have termed “progress” or modernization.

As for the Chinese themselves, Bird, who understandably shared many of the prejudices of her time, found them “ignorant and superstitious beyond belief”, but at the same time “keen and alert”, which made them, in the end, rather enigmatic, as they clung to many of the old ways, unlike the Japanese, who early on adapted aspects of Western culture and technology, but who also, to Bird’s evident dismay, rejected Christianity. Bird admired Confucianism with its emphasis on filial piety, but was nonetheless disappointed that Christianity had not made very significant inroads outside the more educated classes of Chinese people.

However, as she notes in the concluding pages of her book,


I think that there is no doubt that the leaven of Western thought is working surely though slowly among the literary class


and she also felt that


the reform movement, scotched, but not killed, by the strong measures of the Empress Dowager, grew out of it.


China, she believed, needed above all to be driven out of its “conceit and confusion”, and brought inexorably, though not too forcibly, into the new world-order. There is little doubt that Bird felt China would benefit from more contact with the West, both materially and spiritually, and the more she travelled the more she was convinced that this was the right way to go.

The contrast between her views expressed here and those on the Japanese in her Unbeaten Tracks in Japan is palpable, although not differing much from other foreign views of how Western culture was entering the East. We may judge today whether or not history has proved her judgments correct.

Japanese Tales 2With Royall Tyler’s Japanese Tales we enter a completely different world: medieval Japan and its mythic traditions. Royall Tyler is the doyen of translators from Japanese, the equal of the late Edward Seidensticker, who did so much to bring Japanese literature to the West; some of Tyler’s better-known titles are Japanese Noh Drama (1990), The Tale of Genji (2001) and the Tale of the Heike (2012).

For their edition of Japanese Tales the Folio Society commissioned illustrations from Yuko Shimizu, a distinguished Japanese illustrator now based in New York, whose work has appeared in the New York Times and the New Yorker, and who has illustrated a number of books as well. Her art combines the modern (she has illustrated comic books) and the traditional, which fits in beautifully with the stories presented here.

Japanese talesMy own favorites are the wonderful double-page illustration for No. 58, “The Invisible Man”, featuring a motley crew of grotesque demons crossing a bridge reminiscent of Hiroshige, one of whom smokes a cigarette in an elegant cigarette-holder, and the striking “bronze” Kannon in No. 134, “A Fortune from a Wisp of Straw”. Here, Shimizu’s skills make Kannon almost shine, so skillfully does she use various shades of brown.

The tales themselves are gathered from a large number of sources, mostly medieval (there is one story dating from 1578), from about 1100 to 1350, as Tyler tells us in his extensive and very informative introduction. They vary in length from a single paragraph to several pages, and cover a great range of topics; Tyler arranges the tales topically, placing four in each category.

The Introduction is indispensable to a proper understanding of the context of these tales, which are very much more than simple “folk” tales told by country people in remote villages. As Tyler tells us, they would not have been collected at all if they had not appealed to a literate and sophisticated aristocratic audience. Tyler makes sure that we understand something about the world of the tales, which is far different from our own and even from modern Japanese times, where it would be hard, for example, to find anyone who believed in fox-spirits, although ghosts are still popular in movies and some literature. It certainly helps readers to have information about such matters as native gods, Buddhist divinities and supernatural monsters, as well as background to the imperial system, magic and manners, because all of these things are so different from our own experiences, and because, for the people in the tales, they are all part of everyday life.

Japanese Tales,Royall Tyler, Yuko Shimizu (illus) (Folio Society, 2018)
Japanese Tales, Royall Tyler, Yuko Shimizu (illus) (Folio Society, 2018)

Tyler makes all this information very interesting; he writes in a relaxed style and wears his profound learning lightly, which in many ways reflects the spirit of these wonderful tales, which range from the wildly funny, the sexy to the somewhat disturbing, but all of which, as Tyler states, show us “how civilized” the people in them are. The gods here are not jealous or vengeful like the Olympians in Greek mythology, and characters often laugh at themselves; there are too many tales in the collection to single out any of them as examples, but suffice it to say there is something for everyone here.

Tyler tells us that the tales come from what Japanese academics call setsuwa bungaku, which means “tale literature”, but which refers to approximately forty-five collections put together from about 822 to 1350. Most of Tyler’s stories (160, to be precise) come from ten of these, and the remaining ten from medieval sources outside the “canon”. Many stories are Buddhist in nature, and Tyler supplies us with ample introductory material on that topic, but he has taken pains to include a good number of non-Buddhist tales as well, to avoid the book being “far more pious.” Luckily for readers, he was able to achieve that goal, and the tenor of his collection is kept judiciously between the moral and the entertaining.

Again, I cannot recommend this book more highly. It is entertaining, amusing and even uplifting. Royall Tyler has eminently succeeded in conveying the tone of the tales, and he has been able to adopt the various styles used by the writers, some of whom were writing in classical Chinese rather than Japanese, and this variety of languages makes for a variety of the modes of literary expression, to all of which Tyler is very sensitive, and which he explains at the end of his Introduction. The Folio Society did supremely well by choosing Yuko Shimizu to illustrate the book, which is, as usual, attractively designed and packaged, another book for owners to handle and treasure.

All three of these books should be in every library whose owner enjoys Asian material and who values books as works of art in themselves as well.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.