18 March 2010

Tea Books – Fong and Fisher Reviewed

Roy Fong of the Imperial Tea Court is one of the first to make an impact on my personal understanding of tea culture (he used to have a teahouse near Seattle in the 90s) and his tea knowledge is quite vast.  I heard murmurs a few years ago that he was going to begin work on a tea book that he had been wanting to write for a while.  A tea book in the making by an accomplished tea expert, one that it seemed he was truly excited to write?  It would be a great read, I thought, as I impatiently anticipated its publication.

I bought the book from Imperial Tea Court as a pre-order late last year and the book was mailed to me after it was published in December.  In recognition of the patience of pre-order customers, our books were autographed (a nice touch).  However, the book, entitled Great Teas of China, arrived as a narrow and thin paperback.  For a book that costs nearly 20 bucks and took years to plan and write, I was expecting something substantial and insightful, a reflection of Roy’s deep knowledge of tea that I so respect.  I was disappointed by the “introduction to/basic-level” feel of the book, which outlines some of the better-known Chinese teas, interspersed with bits of Roy’s experiences in the industry.  I knew that since his knowledge and expertise span the major types of tea that this book would not be monopolized by oolongs alone.  However, I have a particularly soft spot for Muzha Tieguanyin and Dong Ding, the latter of which was relegated to a few verses in a short chapter that covered not a specific varietal of tea (which pretty much every other chapter did), but a general overview of Taiwan’s teas.  About 10 short pages to cover some of the region’s (some would use the term “Greater China’s”) greatest teas?  Really?!?  To be fair, I did find parts of Roy’s book to be enjoyable because of the stories he included of his own experiences with the tea, and his pictures, as usual, are quite nice.

Did I expect too much?  I don’t think so.  For an industry veteran with such a large amount of insight, connections and understanding of the industry, Roy has the unique ability to put together a substantive English tea book that, like his Imperial Grade Tieguanyin, can have character, body and depth.  There already exist many other tea primer and intro books, chief among them, the Heiss’ 430+ page The Story of Tea that is well-researched and comprehensive; hard to beat at less than $35.  


Last month, I received a complimentary copy of Aaron Fisher’s (of “The Leaf” online tea magazine and “The Art of Tea” English publications) latest book, The Way of Tea: Reflections on a Life with Tea.  I also received a note from Aaron that I was free to write whatever I thought about the book – good or bad – or nothing at all.  I finished the book late last week and the following review of it will be posted web-wide a little bit later:

“I most appreciated the interweaving of history and tea culture as seen through the stages of philosophical and spiritual thought.  The intelligent and penetrating insights and interpretations offered by the author with regards to the major Taoist and Zen philosophies are engaging to the reader.  Fisher ably uses key examples of "tea Zen" from the ages to show readers that mindfulness can be found not only in each cup of tea, but also in its ritual and accompaniments.  A core theme of the book is that the essence of tea is found not in the debate or study of its characteristics or in the compulsion to find, grab and “own” tea wisdom & knowledge, but through a mindful approach to contemplating, enjoying, and sharing the beauty of each brew.  Overall, the book is a gracious offering by the author to share the life-altering experiences that tea can have, which I think many introspective tea lovers will be able to relate to.  I think this book will be well received by those looking for an experience of tea beyond the brew itself.”

I enjoyed Aaron’s latest offering.  I did find that the book was heavy on philosophy and spirituality, and I commented to him that I sometimes felt that the book was more about those subjects, with tea serving as a bridge to unite thought and material existence.  After some continued dialogue with him, I’m comforted by the fact that there are many more stories for Aaron to tell, and many more books that he will tell them in.  As for this one, it is an enjoyable read and quite an interesting perspective from a fellow student of the leaf.

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