Monday, June 1, 2015

A.A. Milne, Benjamin Hoff and Lao Tzu

Late last December, I read A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh books. I did this because, well, I thought that I should. I figured since I have a son of my own I should have these books in the family library and at the very least I should read them. Up until I read these books, I had only a vague idea of what they were and only through the same Walt Disney lens that most of us have at the mention of Winnie-the-Pooh. Of the four books, two of them are Pooh stories and two are straight poetry. I found all of it to be somewhat quaint and very charming in a mid-1920s rural English sort of way. I also found that I could read these books to my then 2 ½ year old son and he stayed interested, thanks in part to Ernest H. Shepard's illustrations.

After completing the four volumes I decided to do some perfunctory research on the matter. For instance, who was A.A. Milne—he was a playwright. Who was Christoper Robin—he was a real boy and the son of the author. Then came the dark parts. Christoper Robin resented the Pooh books. He later claimed that his father had stolen his childhood. He later married a first cousin and led a rather disastrous life. I don't think there is an object lesson in this tragic story. And knowing what became of the Milnes did not affect my reading of these books.

A couple of years back I read The Richest Man in Babylon because my dear friend Kirsten was reading it. As I read, thought about, and later wrote about that book, the basic personal punchline was that I had had a copy of the book over 20 years before and I was unable to read it. I was unable to read more than about two pages of it anyway. The second piece of it was that I was able to read the book later in life with speed, appreciation and joy. I think there are appropriate times to read certain books, times when they make more sense.

This is the case with Benjamin Hoff's The Tao of Pooh. I had had a copy of this book twenty years ago too. I remember reading the book then and enjoying it. The 2015 rereading of it was vastly more fruitful. I found the book to be funny, especially with the Winnie-the-Pooh parts that were added in. I feel like I had a better grasp on the Milne characters and how they related to Hoff and his school of Toaism because I had recently read the four Pooh books. I don't think you would miss Hoff's points should you read his book without reading Milne's books first. For me, I liked having a good grasp on the Pooh characters and so I was able to spend more energy thinking about the larger concepts that Hoff wanted me to catch.

The Tao of Pooh was published in 1982. The Te of Piglet, the followup book, was published decade later in 1992. For as much as I admire what The Tao of Pooh wanted to (and in many ways did) accomplish, I hated The Te of Piglet. It seemed to be more of a proselytizing tone than the former book. It also seemed to be the ugly voice of an entitled baby-boomer. I've come to loathe the baby-boomer sensibility, and honestly, I think I loathed it in 1992 more than I do now. The followup made me wonder two things: first, is it prudent to write sequels? And second: what's going to happen to my thinking, my sensibility in the ten years between now and then?

But I was not turned off from the Tao.

I think when reading, it really behooves a reader to follow a path. In this situation, I started with Pooh, went to humor and philosophy with Benjamin Hoff and then I went to the source.

Of the 80 chapters in Tao Teh Ching I found just about all of them to be quotable. I also found much of this stuff to fit with my of my own world view. I found Lao Tzu to understand the fallacy of human endeavor. I love that a people should not celebrate a victory in war but should lament that they were unable to prevent it. I find this book to be so vast different, 180 degrees different, than modern thought. Next to Walden, Tao Teh Ching is about the only philosophical (or spiritual or religious) text that has ever made much sense.

This little reading journey has very little to do with writing. It has very little to do with fiction which is all I care to write and typically to read. What it is, though, is freedom to read a course of books. And in the flow of these 7 volumes, Hoff is the middleman between Milne and Lao Tzu.     

Hoff, Benjamin. The Tao of Pooh. Penguin: New York, 1982.
Hoff, Benjamin. The Te of Piglet. Penguin: New York, 1992.
Lao Tze. Tao Teh Ching. Shambhala: Boston and London, 2003. John C.H. Wu, trans.
Milne, A.A. The House at Pooh Corner. Dutton: New York, 1928.
Milne, A.A. Winne-the-Pooh. Dutton: New York, 1926.
Milne, A.A. When We Were Very Young. Dutton: New York, 1924.
Milne, A.A. Now We Are Six. Dutton: New York, 1927.

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