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August 21, 2019

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Fair gave us ritual of poetry reading, love of literature and insight into philosophy

It had been long since the last time I cried over a poem. And I noticed people seated next to me shared the same emotions.

I was listening to the recitation of the poem “Praise” by my favorite Chinese modernist Mu Dan (Zha Liangzheng, 1918-1977) at the Shanghai Poetry Gala Night, a major event of the Shanghai Book Fair (August 14- 20). Other poets from China, France, Germany, Nigeria, the UK and the US also gave impassioned readings.

Reading poems can be quick and convenient, but poetry moves us in ways that require patience and concentration.

At the Poetry Gala Night on Friday, I was forced to slow down, allowing myself to be fully absorbed in the poems’ profundity. Usually, it is all too easy to rush through a whole page while thinking about something I need to do in the next hour, or to fill a break by scrolling down a poem on my mobile app.

Reading can be a lonely journey as the readers have no witness to their emotions. However, experiencing poetry with a community brings back a sense of ritual.

When people come together and read aloud, they reinforce the belief that poetry should take a central position in their lives. Besides, the dedicated performance of the poets adds power to the soul-stirring verses.

“Poetry is my homeland,” a poet said at the gala night. The poetry night turned out to be a collective rediscovery of our homeland. It inspires a genuine interest in and zeal for what we might consider “too sublime” for everyday life.

The poetry night was not the only part of the Shanghai Book Fair and International Literary Week that I found rewarding.

Many books and events conveyed the charm of the classics to the public, especially works in literature and philosophy.

This included the soon-to-be published book “The Chinese Literature Class” written by respected professors, chiefly from the Chinese Literature Department of Fudan University.

Inspired by a podcast, the book interprets 100 classic works of modern Chinese literature, such as Lu Xun’s “Call to Arms” and Shen Congwen’s “Border Town,” and categorizes them into ten life stages, such as infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age. The hope is that literature will enrich the life experience of readers and inform what they do not know about themselves.

Professor Chen Sihe, who planned and led the compilation of the book, said that his original intention was to break down the walls of the university or, as he put it, “put the academic voice into the society, and let more people who have no access to college campus hear it.”

Public philosophy

Against the social backdrop that serious literature is losing readers, Chen’s initiative is timely and necessary.

Seeking to let literature influence more people, the book avoids being too academic, or too simplistic and entertainment-oriented to the extent that it no longer stays faithful to the original texts. The authors try to offer readers a creative, critical interpretation of the well-known works. The ultimate goal is to encourage readers to explore the original texts and reflect on them.

Elsewhere, compared to literature, philosophy is often seen as notoriously abstruse and even far removed from the public. However, philosophers today are trying to change this.

German philosophy writer Wolfram Eilenberger’s new book “Time of the Magicians: the Great Decade of Philosophy 1919-1929” tells stories about great thinkers and evokes a magnificent age of German philosophy.

The book sketches the exciting yet different lives of Walter Benjamin, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, and Ernst Cassirer from 1919-1929 and weaves their philosophical ideas into a narrative.

The book was listed among the bestsellers of Der Spiegel and has been translated into more than 20 languages, now including Chinese.

Eilenberger gave a speech about his book at the book fair. The auditorium was crowded with earnest listeners, especially young philosophy lovers, with some sitting on the ground.

When asked why he had chosen public philosophy, Eilenberger answered: “Every human is interested in philosophy, but many people fear that it is too difficult and too demanding for them.”

“Questions like ‘Am I free?’ ‘Does God exist?’ and ‘Is the soul immortal?’ are central to everyone. The question left is who will answer them,” he added.

The belief that philosophy has a profound answer to those questions motivates him to make it accessible to all.

As a philosophy student myself, I am enthusiastic about this innovation. Many people I know are interested in learning philosophy. However, most have no idea how to do so.

They might randomly pick up a book, say Kant, understand barely anything and then decide that philosophy is not for them. Sadly, academic philosophers often write in such a way that even their colleagues find it difficult to read.

Eilenberger’s epic is the opposite. It is intriguing, lively and easy to read. It reveals the dramatic side of the philosophers’ lives. Benjamin was suffering from career failures and an existential crisis; Cassirer, a Jew, was confronted with the rise of anti-Semitist movement; Heidegger was trying to balance domestic peace and an affair with Hannah Arendt.

However, the book also gives clear explanations of their philosophical theories and showcases how the thinkers lived out their ideas. The interplay between their different ideas and lives helps us understand better the spirit of that time as well as ours.

“There is always a trade-off between doing justice to the complexity of the thought and making it accessible,” Eilenberger admitted.

But I believe the task of a popular philosophy book is not to exhaust the depth of a problem, but to give a sketch of important ideas and to evoke interest in reading further.

Good philosophy and literature turn our souls to the light and expose us to unthought questions and unexamined lives.

Everyone needs this, especially in this digital age, though popularizing them is not easy.

The Shanghai Book Fair and International Literary Week, an annual festival for book lovers, offered a broad selection of quality books such as “The Chinese Literature Class” and “Time of the Magicians” as well as engaging events like the Poetry Gala Night, reigniting the public’s enthusiasm for classics.

They were all ingenious initiatives, and let us hope there will be more to follow.

Elaine (Yanlin) Chen is a summer intern with Shanghai Daily. She studies philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, USA.


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