As I’ve noted before, on more than a few occasions, the Internet and the trend toward digitizing old books has opened a whole new world of access to tea books from days gone by. But to be perfectly honest, with their somewhat dry style and specialized subject matter many of these books have languished in obscurity for a reason. While they’re a treasure trove for amateur tea historians like yours truly they’re hardly likely to burn up the bestseller charts anytime soon.
Among the relatively rare exceptions to this unofficial rule regarding dusty old tea books is a work that first appeared in 1906 and which has remained in print, apparently with no break, for more than a century since. While it’s available in a variety of free electronic editions these days, it’s a mark of its continued popularity that you can still find The Book of Tea, by Kakuzo Okakura, in a number of old-fashioned print editions as well.
A slim volume that’s not much longer than a very long article, The Book of Tea might as well have been called The Book of Japanese Tea, as it’s primarily focused on this aspect of tea and culture. In his introductory chapter Okakura briefly sketches the early evolution of tea from medicine to beverage to poetry and then, in the hands of the Japanese, remarks that it was elevated “into a religion of aestheticism—Teaism.” This, the author describes as “a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence.”
Several of the seven chapters that make up this brief work go beyond tea as merely a beverage and explore its connections to other areas of art and culture. In Chapter Three, for instance, the author looks at the links between tea and Asian schools of thought such as Taoism and Zen, while the following chapter explores the aesthetics of the sparse Asian-styled tearoom. Later on, Okakura devotes a chapter to flowers and flower arranging. He winds up with a chapter on Tea-Masters, in which he underscores their importance by stating, “great as has been the influence of the tea-masters in the field of art, it is as nothing compared to that which they have exerted on the conduct of life.”
The Book of Tea at Project Gutenberg
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