A Year in Reading: Jianan Qian

December 6, 2020 | 2 books mentioned 4 min read

My spiritual crisis this year was not triggered by the pandemic but by the trees in St. Louis. Almost every day at noon, I took a walk to see the trees in my neighborhood: branches reaching into the sky and leaves shimmering in the sun. I marveled at their majesty and wanted to know what they had to say to me. To figure that out, I downloaded a  plant-identification app on my phone and paid extra attention when I came across trees in literary works. But the more I read, the more confused I became. The app fed me the knowledge about their names in Latin, flowering period, the uses of their fruits and wood. Literature offered me miscellaneous metaphorical meanings of trees: endurance of hardship, ancient wisdom, and sense of belonging. At the end of the day, I started to wonder whether we humans had ever seen trees as what they were or merely imposed our desires and needs onto them.

While having a picnic in a park with a friend, I catapulted the same question to him. As soon as I finished my sentence, I looked up and saw a bird flap her wings and fly away. “See?” I said to my friend, “I’ve scared the bird away.”  Right there and then, I realized my interpretation of the bird stemmed from a fundamentally human-centered point of view.

A month after that picnic, I moved to L.A. and started a new Ph.D. in English at USC. I would run into a quote by Italian Philosopher Benedetto Croce: when we peek into nature, we see only ourselves.

Nature aside, do we really see other humans as who they are? Most of the time, we are pleased with what we think others may have felt without asking what they have really felt. Our family and friends may have also become the object of our hope and fear; we love them perhaps because we love our own images in them.

I do not know how or whether it is even possible to get out of a human-centered and self-centered perspective. Here are a list of books that I read this year in order to seek the answer.

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War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
Once in an interviewwith Paul Harding, he shared the joy of reading a big book. “You get to live with it longer,” he said. “It becomes like a friend or lover.” Early this year, I ticked an item on my bucket list: reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. It is a big and rich world, and I felt fortunate to experience the lives of many different characters. Eventually, I knew why this book was a classic.

However, I also found the didactic quality of the novel disturbing. All the male characters go through similar disillusionment of the Great Men and the war; they come to reconcile with death only through religious faith. Reading Tolstoy’s essays alongside with the novel, I realized those characters’ revelation presented Tolstoy’s own philosophy of life. A more tricky question came up with the female character Natasha: eventually, she abandoned her personhood and became merely a wife and mother. That was the only happy ending Tolstoy could picture for a woman in his time. Then again, I wonder if he did see characters as who they were or merely manipulated them to convey his morals.

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Howards End by E. M. Forster
Howards End inspires me to see the possibility of human interconnectedness. There is a lot to admire in this fantastic novel, in particular its architecture. The Wilcoxes are strong-willed, conservative, practical, and preoccupied with  their material interest and social position. But they are the people who have built the British Empire in the first place. The Schlegel sisters are open-minded, idealistic, and passionate about art, music, literature, and thoughts. They represent modernity and change. Just like that, the novel beautifully epitomized the English society at an intersection of transformation.

More marvelous still is Forster’s use of the gendered characteristics to display the strength and weakness of England’s past and future. The masculine Wilcoxes promise the country with power and stability, but they are also self-indulgent and cruel. The feminine Helen Schlegel is kind, loving, and passionate about social justice but oftentimes too romantic to know what responsibility really means. The conflict between the two sides tears England into fragments. Forster’s literary solution to this problem is another Character: Margaret Schlegel. Childless and asexual, Margaret eventually becomes the reconciler, connector, and communicator between the two conflicting sides.

Back to my question about egocentrism: if we cannot change my default human-centered or self-centered mindset, perhaps we could still try hard to become an intermediate and communicator.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
When I was talking about my spiritual crisis with my friend in St. Louis, he reminded me the relation between consciousness and being. As René Descartes famously said, “I think and therefore I am.” The trees and the bird exist in my consciousness in the first place. “Only humanity has consciousness,” my friend said. “Animals and trees don’t.”

I tried to talk myself into embracing consciousness, but when I stumbled upon The Hidden Life of Trees, I learned that nonhuman beings may have consciousnesses as well, albeit in a very different sense. According to Wohlleben, trees are “social beings,” who “share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors.” Wohlleben also shows the way trees communicate with each other. On the African savannah, for example, the acacia trees refuse to feed the giraffes and thus exude toxic substances into their leaves. Those trees do not only protect themselves but also give off ethylene to warn their neighboring trees of the presence of the giraffes.

Even though Wohlleben adopts an anthropomorphic and thus more accessible language to describe trees, the consciousness of trees may still help lift us at least out of human hubris. I think that is a good start to really see nature.

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is a staff writer at The Millions. She writes in both Chinese and English. In Chinese, she has published a story collection, a novel, and an essay collection. In English, her works have appeared or are forthcoming in The New York Times, Guernica Magazine, The Bare Life Review, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in fiction from The Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

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