The Importance of Living

Lin Yutang

Book cover

“Those who are wise won’t be busy, and those who are too busy can’t be wise.” -Lin Yutang

This is a lovely old book that I discovered due to Robert Wringham quoting it, with high commendation, in his book Escape Everything! Mr. Lin, who was born in China in 1895 and published The Importance of Living in 1937 shortly after moving to America, has an outlook on life that will be familiar to anyone who has read Wringham’s publication, The New Escapologist: deeply interested in exploring how we live our lives and why we do it the way we do, but at the same time, suffused with a sense of lightheartedness and of love for fellow humans.

In many ways, this book is reminiscent of Montaigne’s Essays. It’s a wide-ranging treatment of a variety of subjects, and while Lin tries a bit more to be comprehensive than Montaigne, he certainly doesn’t try to develop any kind of overarching intellectual structure–that would be anathema. The closest he has to a thesis is probably, “be reasonable.” I can trace a line from Montaigne through Lin to Wil Wheaton’s admonishment, “Don’t be a dick.”

Lin was a popularizer of Chinese thought and culture to Americans, and a fair amount of this book is framed as “explaining how the Chinese mind sees things.” I take this with a very large grain of salt and mostly chalk it up to a successful publicity angle; I fully believe that the Chinese figures Lin cites said and thought what he conveys, but it seems clear to me that it is his own idiosyncratic set of intellectual influences–which is fine by me, and even preferable, to any more objective attempt to characterize “the” point of view of such a huge and ancient civilization.

Lin is an arch-humanist, and a kindred spirit to Epicurus and Baloo the Bear. I don’t think he ever mentions it, but I think he would heartily agree with Terence’s line, “Nothing human is alien to me.” One of my most-quoted lines from the book is about how the happiest a person can be is after a morning poop. He is exceedingly cynical about the rat race and man’s vain strivings, but at the same time, he is utterly compassionate and exhorts us over and over to bear in mind and to accept warmly that we are flawed creatures. Although, as I said, he is not trying to build a philosophical edifice, I appreciate that he starts not from the premise that we are rational minds, but that we are embodied creatures who get hungry, die, and so forth. This to me seems like a much better starting point for an outlook that will result in a happy life.

My only real knock against the book is for Lin’s misogynistic streak. It’s of a fairly mild variety that isn’t too surprising given his time and place–an othering of women that goes hand in hand with saying how wonderful they are. (Although, perhaps not as “of his time and place” as I’d prefer to think: “Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified”–Paul Ryan, 2016.)

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars