Lin Yu-T'ang (1895-1976) was born in China. However, he attended Harvard University of Leipzig in the West. He has written both nonfiction and novels explaining modern China to readers from other cultural backgrounds. A highly respected educator and writer, he taught at Peking National University for many years and was chancellor of Nanyang University in Singapore, as well as the head of the Arts Division of UNESCO in 1948 and 1949. His best known books are My Country and My People and The Importance of Understanding, from which the following selection was taken.
(1) Reading or the enjoyment of books has always been regarded among the charms of a cultured life and is respected and envied by those who rarely give themselves that privilege. This is easy to understand when we compare the difference between the life of a man who does no reading and that of a man who does. The man who has not the habit of reading is imprisoned in his immediate world, in respect to time and space. His life falls into a set routine, he is limited to contact and conversation with a few friends and acquaintances, and he sees only what happens in his immediate neighborhood. From this prison there is no escape. But the moment he takes up a book, he immediately enters a different world, and if it is a good book, he is immediately put in touch with one of the best talkers of the world. This talker leads him on and carries him into a different country or a different age, or unburdens to him some of his personal regrets, or discusses with him some special line or aspect of life that the reader knows nothing about. An ancient author puts him in communion with a dead spirit of long ago, and as he reads along, he begins to imagine what that ancient author looked like and what type of person he was. Both Mencius and Ssema Ch'ien, China's greatest historian have expressed the same idea. Now to be able to live two hours out of twelve in a different world and take ones thoughts off the claims of the immediate present is, of course, a privilege to be envied by people shut up in their bodily prison. Such a change of environment is really similar to travel in its psychological effect