Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book Review: The White Road

The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession
Edmund de Waal
Biography, art

A couple of years ago a ceramic artist named Edward de Waal wrote a book called The Hare With Amber Eyes. In it he used the titular netsuke figurine as a framing device for an evocative and moving history of his family. It's an absorbing book about loss and recovery, the ephemeral and the permanent.

The White Road is less successful. De Waal doesn't seem to understand what the book is about. Is it a single-subject history of porcelain? Is it a personal memoir? Is it a poetic meditation on Art? Is it a travelogue? It partakes of all of these things, but not fully enough to be any of them. It fails as a history of the substance, to pick on the first aspect, by not providing enough facts about what porcelain is, how it differs chemically and physically from other forms of pottery, what the full history of it encompasses, etc. etc. etc.

That would be a very Enlightenment sort of book, by the way. De Waal's preoccupations seem to be more Romantic. In the first third of the book, he seems to be trying to share with the reader the subjective, inner experience of what it means to truly love this beautiful material--a quintessentially Romantic concern. It's not an unworthy ambition, but De Waal doesn't pull it off. He tries to be profound, but too often he's merely precious. (Pro tip: littering your text with one-sentence paragraphs robs the device of any force that it might have had.) Among other things, he's annoyingly fond to the pathetic fallacy.

The White Road is by no means a complete failure. There are eloquent passages, there are interesting biographical anecdotes, there are informative facts. It's just that there aren't enough of any one of them to make a whole book out of. 

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