The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura (screen capture from site)

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura (screen capture from site)

What’s the most influential book ever written about tea? Ancient Chinese scholar Lu Yu wrote one that’s said to be one of the first ever written about tea, but it’s not very easy to get your hands on an English copy nowadays. In much more modern times, the blue ribbon might arguably go to the Tea Lover’s Treasury, by James Norwood Pratt.

But you’d also have to mention The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura, a slim tome that’s apparently been in print since it was first published more than a century ago, in 1906. Check out the overview I wrote last year or read the entire book for free online at Project Gutenberg.

Or you could read it half a hundred (thousand? zillion?) other places around the Internet or pick up one of who knows how many editions elsewhere. Which brings up an interesting question – which version of The Book of Tea should you read? Correct me if I’m wrong, but for a casual reader who doesn’t require a printed copy the aforementioned edition should do just fine.

Beyond that it gets a little bit tricky. At the popular book site, Goodreads, they list more than one hundred editions of the book, while Amazon boasts a total of 200 formats and editions. Which can be a bit overwhelming. I’ve hardly got the time and space to make a comprehensive survey of the field but that won’t stop me from throwing in my two cents.

I’d start by saying that it’s very easy for just about anyone to put out an ebook or a print on demand edition nowadays, especially if they’re publishing an old book that’s not protected by copyright. Which is to say that the buyer should beware of what they’re buying and realize that what looks to be a bargain might not actually be one.

Whether you’re springing for a paper or electronic edition it probably can’t hurt to go with a reputable name and over the years such well-known publishers as Tuttle Publishing, Dover Publications and Penguin have all come out with editions of this work. But if the truth be told if the publishers have managed to get all of Okakura’s words in there and have them in the correct order there doesn’t seem to be that much to differentiate these editions from each other, aside from perhaps some illustrations and an introduction and/or commentary from some august personage.

Among those versions that seem worth mentioning, a 2011 edition from Benjamin Press that features an introduction from noted tea guy Bruce Richardson, and more. There’s also an edition from Shambhala Classics, who are well known for their books on various Asian topics. Or you could get it as part of a Zen Tea Ceremony (Mega Mini Kit), which features “a gorgeous square cloth, incense and holder, tea bowl, metal steeper, and an 88-page Book of Tea.”

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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