When Anne Mei and I were in Seattle a few weeks ago, we went to the Elliott Bay Book Company. While she was off browsing American history and current events, I was doing my usual scan of Asian philosophy. I became aware of a young man talking in the way that young men do when they’re trying to impress a young woman. I glanced around and sure enough he was talking with a young Asian woman. He was Anglo. He was trying very hard to let her know how hip he was to her culture, or at least what he presumed was her culture. He started to blather about some college course in Daoism, and the next thing I hear is the opening lines of the Dàodéjīng. In Mandarin.
Dào kě dào, fēi cháng dào; míng kě míng, fēi cháng míng.*
Like him, I know this passage because I memorized it once, for me as part of an effort to appreciate the poetry of the Dàodéjīng. Sounded as though he had done so for his class. Now it was a good pick up line. When I was his age, I used the opening lines of Virgil’s Aeneid in Latin, which I had to memorize in high school. For the same purpose. Now I’m an old man and I recite them to prove the mind hasn’t gone totally to mush, even if it’s just the first two lines, and not the whole first stanza that Fr. Walsh made us learn and recite from memory.
Arma virumque cano, Troiae qui primus ab oris
Italiam, fato profugus, Laviniaque venit …**
In any case, I was reminded of the joy of visiting the Elliott Bay Book Company this week when Gale and I discovered the Community Book Store on 7th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY. It’s smaller than Elliott Bay, and even than Labyrinth Books in Princeton, but a delight to browse. No coffee bar, but a small, tree-shaded garden in the back, through the children’s section, complete with a bubbling fountain. It’s worth going back to Park Slope just to visit the Community Book Store. Perhaps you’ll find an ancient text that has just the right line to attract your true love.
* The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name. (Lau translation)
** I sing of arms and the man who first from the shores of Troy, exiled by fate came to Italy and Lavinian shores …