Books with Bones


“I do not open up the truth to one who is not eager to get knowledge, nor help out anyone who is not anxious to explain himself. When I have presented one corner of a subject to anyone, and he cannot from it learn the other three, I do not repeat my lesson.” (Analects,  7.8, tr. Legge) I was given a surprising new perspective on this famous saying of Confucius’ one day in, of all places, a class in Greek geometry.

It was an icy December morning. We were sitting around the elongated octagonal table awaiting the arrival of the few remaining students, excited to dig into the proposition in which Apollonius introduces the parabola. Now the Greek geometers usually teach by giving us a corner at a time: while the book as a whole may seem to be a progression of linked proofs in which all the steps are laid out, a student who is alert and passionate to learn will see that most proofs in Euclid and Apollonius are really only a single corner. The other three corners become apparent as one goes further into the book and understands more, but they are present nonetheless to be discovered b the geometrically spirited. A good example in Euclid would be the Pythagorean theorem, which appears at first as the climax of Book 1 (beyond which many people do not read) but which is delved into through books 2 and 3, and then reaches its most general and most interesting form in Book 6. The famous 1.47 thus turns out to be the tip of an iceberg. This applies even more to Apollonius, who characteristically sweeps snow over his tracks and mystifies us with brilliant and uncanny constructions: What could he have seen that would have caused him to think this might be true? Descartes accused him of showing off, of wanting to dazzle by pulling impossible rabbits out of his hat — but it’s more likely that he is trying to provoke his students into finding the other three corners. Reading Apollonius often means reading several inches behind the surface of the page, and developing habits of mulling and searching even as we meet something for the first time.

About to launch into an investigation of how Apollonius arrives at the construction for finding a parabola, by way of small talk and warm-up I looked to the two students from mainland China and said: “Last night I had the worst Chinese food I’ve ever had in my life.” They perked up and grinned in anticipation, since Chinese food in this town is usually not very inspiring. “It was from a Mexican-Chinese buffet restaurant called JCs. There were hardly any vegetables, only large chunks of meat in various thick sauces. I took some home, but when it cooled off it just smelled of old lard.” We then discussed other Chinese options in town. By then the whole class was present and we were ready to begin, but I asked a question: “What’s the main difference between real Chinese food and American Chinese food?”

Both students stopped to think, then replied simultaneously: “No bones! They laughed at their own unanimity. “No bones in American Chinese food.”

This was a wonderful answer. I found myself reflecting on my experiences eating meat in China, and recalled that my first reaction to Chinese butchery was dismay at a failure to follow the natural lines in separating meat from bone; instead, the animal was chopped up ruthlessly into chopstick-sized squares, bones and all. But my dismay changed as I learned how to eat. My friends would pick up a piece and then work it with their whole mouths, delicately picking out all the tiny bits of meat, sucking the marrow, enjoying the smoothness off bone and the juices from it. Best of all, every single piece would be different, with a different ratio of bone to meat, a different shape of bone — and when the bone is present, tendons and ligaments also become defined to the tongue. The bones are not just “trash,” but essential to texture and taste. They slowed down the eating, but also made it more mindful and therefore more satisfying: each taste would be multi-textured, delightfully varied, fascinating — and more nutritious, because there is magic in the marrow!

A cuisine that discards all bones as trash is motivated mainly by a sterile notion of “efficiency”: maximum protein in the minimum time. It is about speed and quantity. Such a cuisine also values homogeneity: there shall be no difference between chicken breast and chicken breast, each chunk of white meat is meant to go down the throat in the same way, every hamburger is the same. The food is “fast” both in production and in consumption: indeed, there is only consuming, not eating. No bones means no savoring, no attentiveness, no fascination; sensory enjoyment is diminished as much as possible, and pushed to the peripheries of mind. We can eat without even noticing it. The relishing of bones, on the other hand, necessarily involves careful, conscious preparation — because people who enjoy tasting food will always notice. Boneless eating starts as a symptom of the Puritannical fear of pleasure, which is really fear of our own weakness; but then it becomes a habit.

No bones has become for me a perfect phrase to describe what passes for education in many places today. It is epitomized in the culture of thick textbooks, which strive to transmit large amounts of information and theory with as little hindrance as possible. It is an education that works by the ingestion of conclusions — and avoids the indigestion of questions. All four corners are given, it seems; the students are not expected to find them, or to hurt themselves trying to find them. They are found already, so why bother? — someone just tell me. In contrast, all classical writing is meat with bones — not just the geometers and Confucius, but Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Laozi, Zhuangzi — and many moderns too: Machiavelli and Hobbes require delicate chewing, as do Chekhov and Flaubert. It may be that boneless eating and boneless writing both came to prominence in the industrial age, which privileges quantity over depth — indeed, quantity over any quality that cannot be measured. My students’ observation about no bones illuminated Confucius for me in this way: he does not mean that getting the other corners is the aim of studying, the end that makes the labor worthwhile — but that the true student likes the activity of searching seriously, and only because of this finds it satisfying to encounter the other corners when eventually the present themselves. If all we want is the conclusion, books with bones can only be frustrating. But teachers like Apollonius want us to grow the power of mind that can see as deeply into things as he does, and this is why they tease us, jolt us, resist us, forcing us to work over the bone with our minds’ tongues. Resistance is our friend when we want to become stronger.

An old friend of mine in China, Professor Gao Jian, who was one of the great translators of English literature into Chinese, used to light up with joy whenever we started discussing the 19th century essayists. He would reach for his book and read aloud slowly from Hazlitt or Lamb; and every few sentences he would pause, beaming, shaking his head fondly, as he murmured: “Ah, the flavor, the flavor!”



5 thoughts on “Books with Bones

  1. Bones made me immediately think of Astronomia Nova. On the other hand, the Epitome is Astronomia Nova without the bones–the textbook version.

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