An earlier draft of this essay was published in Be: A Journal of Creative Expression in April 2017.
Ever since I came to Iowa City, I’ve spent a lot of time watching the sunset. The view is very different from anything I have seen in China.
The first thing I’ve noticed here in Iowa is that the sunset lasts so long. The sun seems so reluctant to retire to his palace that until 8 p.m. the summer night is still glowing, unbelievable for those who are used to a dark sky at 7. My old sense of the sunset is challenged. I don’t really see a circular red sun, like a boiled egg yolk, slowly sinking into the horizon; instead I see the gold light, dyeing the entire sky. I used to regard the color gold as more artificial than natural—a royal hue claimed exclusively by the emperor in the olden days, or the vulgar bling the newly rich like to wear in the modern day. Never have I seen it shimmering thus in the boundless sky, and I am transfixed by it.
If you go back to classical Chinese poetry, you will probably see that the image of sunset usually refers to “sorrows” and “sadness.” Li Shangyin, a famous poet in Tang Dynasty, wrote in “The Leyou Tombs,” “To see the sun, for all his glory, / Buried by the coming night” (translated by Witter Bynner). The sunset in Chinese is often called a “night sun” or a “slanting sun,” both metaphors of the very last light that one can hold in his life. The other day when I was waiting for a bus at around 7:30 p.m. in Iowa City, I saw the sky blazing and all the clouds outlined by the gold sunset light, like the gilded bronze reliefs in Gates of Paradise in Florence. I felt as if cherubs were about to jump out of one of the clouds. In 30 minutes’ ride, the horizon was still burning gold. I wondered, if I kept heading west, would I see a line of gold horizon forever? The sunset light conveys a message of hope rather than despair. Now I understand why the distinguished poet Carl Sandburg wrote the opposite of how Li Shangyin responded to the sunset:
I tell you there is nothing in the world/ only an ocean of tomorrows. / a sky of tomorrows. / I am a brother of the cornhuskers who say/ at sundown: / Tomorrow is a day.
The glowing gold lends infinite power to look forward to tomorrows.
In order to dig deeper into American culture when I came to Iowa, I attend a weekly Bible Study with Elva Craig, a fellow of Faith Baptist Church in Iowa City. Elva asked me a question when we were in the very beginning, reading Genesis: “The sun and the moon were not created by God until the fourth day of creation, and so where do you think the light came on the first day?” I have never thought of such a question before. “Well, I don’t know exactly myself,” Elva said. “But I pictured that on the very first day, God opened a window from Heaven to let the light of Heaven flow to the Earth.” There is some difficulty here—heaven was created after light rather than before light, on the second day. But I liked her interpretation. I thought many people in Western context might have a similar picture in mind when reading Genesis for the first time. Light thus becomes a crucial symbol in Western culture—the Lord’s first gift to lift men out of darkness.
Little by little, the concept of light broadens, and it incorporates richer content. Enlightenment Europe vividly depicted how “light of knowledge” is shone on men. Light seems to determine aesthetic criteria in the Western culture too: When decorating houses, people in America install plentiful windows, as glass is friendly to sunlight. You like to tile the floor of toilets with white ceramic tiles as those will bring more light in to make the place brighter and cleaner. City parks in Europe and America are patches of wide-spreading grass where one can enjoy as much sunshine as possible. Oh, how you love to bathe in the sun! Even when the beauty of a woman is presented in oil paintings or in literary works, the woman must be lit; otherwise, her beauty cannot be seen.
Once, during a thaw, the bark of the trees in the yard was oozing, the snow melted on the roofs of the buildings; she stood on the threshold, went to fetch her sunshade and opened it. The parasol, made of an iridescent silk that let sunlight sift through, colored the white skin of her face with shifting reflections. Beneath it, she smiled at the gentle warmth; drops of water fell one by one on the taut silk.
This is how Gustave Flaubert describes Emma in Madame Bovary. Without the sifting sunlight, Charles couldn’t catch her beauty. Perhaps that is why God created light on the first day.
Ancient Chinese people contributed many inventions to human civilization, but we did not invent glass, nor did we use glass often (even though we did have it as early as the late Spring and Autumn period, i.e., early fifth century B.C.). It seems to me that the reason is more due to aesthetic considerations than practical ones. Glass lets in too much sunlight, rendering the space totally exposed. Ancient Chinese people frowned at the idea of a complete view of a place. How boring! How unromantic! They preferred shadows to light.
In traditional East Asian architecture, we cover the window frames and door frames with paper. Paper softens the strong sunlight. The shapes of window frames and door frames—flowery patterns, shapes of Chinese characters—can cast their long mellow shadows to the inside of a house. Toilets become poetic, too! The fabulous Japanese writer Junichiro Tanizaki praised the Japanese toilet as “a place of spiritual repose.” Like Chinese ones, it is built outdoors, keeping a modest distance from the main building, and is usually set under a thatch roof in China, or in a grove “fragrant with leaves and moss” in Japan. “No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden,” Tanizaki wrote in In Praise of Shadows. These lines are by far the most beautiful words I have ever read of a toilet.
Our city parks are also different from their Western counterparts. Traditional Chinese city parks were designed in such a way that as you take a step forward, you capture a different glimpse of the same view. For example, our conventional parks are often dotted with pavilions. When you glance at a pavilion from far away, you see it surrounded by the stream and plants. When you near the pavilion, you will see how the roof, columns, and railings altogether frame a certain part of stream and only one or two plants, just like a Chinese painting—the Chinese poems carved on the columns echoing the verses inscribed by an artist on the margins of his painting. Then, when you go inside the pavilion and look out from one of its windows, you will notice in a corner where we place grotesque-shaped stones (“fake mountains” in literal translation) near the plants, in a way to mimic the bridges, mountains, and animals. Thus this corner becomes a miniature of nature itself. You never get a single view of a Chinese city park. Instead, you need to walk to discover the innumerable possibilities for beauty.
When drinking wine (baijiu, soju, and sake), we use colored ceramics or potteries, and often we inscribe Chinese characters on them or carve them into plantlike or animal-like shapes; then we can enjoy the colorful and interesting shadows in the cup when drinking.
If you have watched a few traditional Chinese operas, you would probably notice that Chinese beauties on the stage are likely to hide half of their faces behind their painted fans or long, well-embroidered sleeves. To us, these sleeves and fans render the women even more glamourous. Instead of having a full picture of what the woman looks like, we imagine her looks, her voice, and her character based on our limited sight of her. In our fantasies, her beauty is infinite. Also, we dare not look directly at a woman as it is considered very rude in our culture. What we can do is to steal a look at a tiny little part of her and complement our delight as well as regrets with our imagination.
A woman’s eye floated up before him. He almost called out in his astonishment. But he had been dreaming, and when he came to himself he saw that it was only the reflection in the window of the girl opposite. Outside it was growing dark, and the lights had been turned on in the train, transforming the window into a mirror. The mirror had been clouded over with steam until he drew that line across it.
The above paragraph is from Snow Country, written by Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata, the 1968 Nobel Prize winner for literature. His angle of showcasing a woman’s beauty is distinct from Flaubert’s. He lets the male narrator capture a glimpse of only a small part of the woman: her single eye. It could seem more terrifying than pleasant for Western readers. This kind of gaze is very common for a man in Eastern countries to meet a woman. Zhou Zuoren, a great prose writer in modern Chinese literary history, depicts the beauty of his first love only by showing her feet, as her feet are the only sight he dares to catch—he merely glues his eyes to the floor. Whereas Flaubert eventually focuses on the light cast on the white skin of Emma, Kawabata blurs his literary camera with “steam.” Here, the steam, functioning similarly to the sleeves or the fans in traditional Chinese operas, holds the woman at a decent distance from her admirer, thus making her untouchable and more enigmatic. Beauty is not what we see in the light, but how we imagine what we cannot see.
I am writing nostalgically of a traditional Eastern culture; it is all gone. Nowadays, we all install glass windows, tile the floor with white ceramic, and try every means to make our “home, sweet home” a “clean, well-lit place.” Modernization and Westernization have compelled us to abandon cherished practices. But I can’t help wondering: Can we reserve a little space for our own, where we worship our shadows, not your light?
Lately I’ve found myself collecting short non-fiction books. Collecting makes it sound grandiose, but my stash of 30 or so volumes is smaller in aggregate than a breadbox. It’s also been less intentional than the word “collecting” implies: The books seem to turn up of their own accord like stray kittens or spare socks, orphaned except for the company of their own kind. Each one on its own might not amount to much, but together they comprise a highly portable compendium of human knowledge.
Monographs are in style, from Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry to Kristin Dombek’s The Selfishness of Others and Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death, all presenting critical, topical investigations driven by the wry voices of their authors. The format can be a venue for public discourse on pressing issues, too, as in Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends, a harrowing first-person look into the immigration system, or Eula Biss’s On Immunity, with its eloquent delineation of vaccines. Brian Dillon’s Essayism, however, is the ultimate literary ouroboros: a book-length essay on essayists.
The short book can also be a container for the self without the self-aggrandizement of a full memoir. Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors and Gregor Hens’s Nicotine both fit here, as does the Italian translator Franco Nasi’s lovely pamphlet about living in the United States, Translator’s Blues. Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness and 300 Arguments likewise offer only slantwise glimpses of the author through aphoristic fragments sharp as darts. It’s easy to recognize yourself in them: A friend memorably described the latter as “subtweets about your life.”
The Twitter connection is apropos, since social media has contributed to our sense of a depleted attention span. Is the short book popular because we just can’t handle more than 150 pages anymore? The form does thrive in tweets and Instagrams as intellectual plumage. It’s easy to finish them, and thus easier to brag about having read them. “They come already compressed,” Christine Smallwood observed of the trend in T Magazine. “You will learn something, for sure, but not more than you can handle.”
But this gloss gives short books short shrift. Short books are not narratives, but devices: instead of the telescope of a long novel or history tome, they are a pair of sunglasses, allowing you to see the world, briefly and temporarily, in a different shade. Most mornings, I look at the stack on my shelf, a rainbow of thin spines, and pick a few to carry with me—to a cafe, on the subway, to my office. Like choosing an outfit, the books both express and influence how I feel that day.
Say the mood is colorful. Here you have options, because a single color is the perfect subject for a short book. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson can tell you about blue, and patches of blue outside seem to glow with new meaning. Alain Badiou’s Black offers the semiotics of that “non-color,” shot through with his own memories of (literally) dark moments: as a child playing in an unlit room or camping out in the French military. Kenya Hara, a Japanese designer, meditates on the emptiness of white in White; Han Kang has her own version coming up with The White Book.
Each of these volumes frees its mates of the burden of being comprehensive: The short book doesn’t need to pretend that it’s the only object a reader has at hand. Instead, they are entries in a collective lexicon, a library you can take with you.
For a bracing blast of postmodern ennui, pick up the architect Rem Koolhaas’s Junkspace with Running Room, an aria to the endlessness of 21st-century detritus: “The aesthetic is Byzantine, gorgeous and dark, splintered into thousands of shards, all visible at the same time.” Or you could carry Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 38 pages that upend the world: “The instant the criterion of genuineness in art production failed, the entire social function of art underwent an upheaval.” Or George W.S. Trow’s Within the Context of No Context, a fractured 1981 diagnosis of the impact of mass media on American identity: “Comfort failed. Who would have thought that it could fail?”
These contain potent medicine (or poison, I sometimes think), and it’s a relief that each ends before too long, though still long enough to change your life. Like a pill, their form is always inextricable from their content, just right for proper delivery of the drug within.
The short book demonstrates ways in which to live, but rather than self-help’s prescriptive explanations, it is content to evoke possibilities. The Swiss writer Fleur Jaeggy’s aptly titled These Possible Lives gives prismatic recitations of the biographies of Thomas De Quincey, John Keats, and Marcel Schwob, reducing what could be thousands of pages into a scant 60 of hallucinatory description. Shawn Wen’s A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause sketches an impressionistic biography of Marcel Marceau, a famed French mime. I like the book’s voyeurism into the peculiar life, but also observing the challenge—and Wen’s success—of describing in words Marceau’s absence thereof. (The short book is also great for writer’s block.)
The paragon of the short-book form, for my taste, is In Praise of Shadows by the Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. In the 42-page essay first published in 1933, Tanizaki contrasts the Japanese appreciation of darkness—the dim of rice-paper windows, candle lanterns, and black lacquered dishes—with the Westerner’s “quest for a brighter light:” electric lamps, glass windows, and white porcelain. The book’s brevity is synecdochic: It contains the world, from Noh drama to Albert Einstein, “murmuring soup,” the difficulties of building a house, an obscure local recipe for sushi, and what the author perceived as the roots of Japanese identity.
Tanizaki persistently reminds readers that the essay is merely his vision, a personal worldview as an elderly novelist perhaps more at home in the previous century than his present. He claims no authority. Yet his ambition is grand, to preserve in writing that particular lens so that it might be experienced by others: “I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing,” he writes in the book’s final paragraph. Every time I open it, the patches of shade around me are briefly illuminated by Tanizaki’s prose.
I Instagrammed In Praise of Shadows so many times that friends asked how long I was taking to finish it. Rather than some kind of brag, I just liked how it looked—it was fun to put a monochrome book about darkness in patches of bright sunlight, a visual pun. But getting to the end of a short book isn’t the point. It’s about rereading, mulling, flipping it open to see what you find, turning it over like a coin in your pocket.
Tanizaki’s essay accomplishes the highest criteria I have for any book, short or long, which is that it offers an alternative aesthetic imaginary, a toolset to reconstruct the world in real time. Its voice sneaks into your head. And its format makes it convenient to keep hidden away in my bag, with me at all times.
Image credit: Unsplash/Duc Ly.