[Book Review] The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, by Simon Leys

I was extremely surprised – and not a little bit joyful – to find an essayist of this calibre living in my country, and available in a major bookstore.
The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays by Stephen Leys

The Hall of Uselessness: Collected EssaysThe Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays by Simon Leys

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book by Simon Leys – not his real name – has a beautiful title. The Hall of Uselessness is a title of which, in the reading, you will come to understand as being references to high education and the necessity of time in which to Do Nothing.

It has been a long time since I had read a real volume of essays. At approximately 451 pages (which includes the index), this is not a slouch of a read. It is also hardly a tome; indeed, it says more about how much I read these days, than it does about the extent of the book.

It had been a long time between volumes of essays, because for a long time I have resisted being honest with myself about the fact that I am an essayist and not a novelist or a short story writer. In resigning myself to being honest with myself, I bought this collection on a whim. A total whim. I did not read reviews, I did not read blurbs. I saw the title and actively thought to myself, I must have that book.

Or rather, the universe told me to buy this book. Reading The Hall of Uselessness was an experience akin to coming home. I settled into the pages of these collected essays with comfort and intellectual joy. I wrote copious notes in a notebook I had been given as a gift just before buying this volume. I shamelessly marked up the text of the book itself with my own notes, in a fine-flowing black ink.

I was extremely surprised – and not a little bit joyful – to find an essayist of this calibre living in my country, and available in a major bookstore.

Stephen Leys spoke to me of all the things that I philosophise, consider, ponder, and think about from day to day. Multi-lingual, schooled in Chinese history, philosophy, and politics, and with a clear and open mind, Leys’s work spoke to me like an old friend. I learned a lot about about Chinese politics and perspectives. I appreciated commentary on great authors I love and admire, like Chesterton, and Chekhov. I wanted to learn French to understand much more of Leys’s undying admiration for so many writers who wrote and published in French. I want to go back and re-read Confucius, having now gained another perspective on his work; one that reinforced and added to my own understandings.

Perhaps more importantly, I started to write again, through the sheer, soular energy with which this book provided me. I sat for afternoons on end, reading pages, and pondering pages, my journal alongside me for company. Some afternoons I read until dark. Some evenings I battled against work-induced tiredness to get through two pages before I slept.

As so beautifully quoted near the end of the book:

The poet Reverdy said: ‘I need so much time to do nothing that I have none left for work.’

Through it all, I have nurtured an absurd desire to write to this author in profuse and gushing thanks. In a rare burst of discipline, I would not let myself do so until I had finished the book. Thus, my desire to spend time with this work was intensified during every minute that I was unable to read it.

And now that it is over, I… uh. Don’t really know what to read next. I might go buy another volume of essays with which to quench my intellectual thirst.

On that note, I must go. I have a letter to write.

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Click here to buy your own copy of this book. I highly recommend it.

 

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