When I visited Leonard Koren at his home last October, he told me that when he first set out to write about the notion of beauty—or more specifically, the kind of beauty he felt most deeply drawn to—, a Japanese monk told him, “That will take you many lifetimes.”
But in this lifetime, at least, Leonard has bestowed on us another book about beauty, a complement to Wabi-Sabi: for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers, which was first published over a decade ago, in 1994. The most recent book, published just two weeks ago, is called Wabi-Sabi: Further Thoughts.
In his first book, he wrote, “wabi-sabi is a beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. It is a beauty of things modest and humble. It is a beauty of things unconventional.” Since its introduction by Leonard, who has been both a gatekeeper and translator of the term, wabi-sabi has seeped into the aesthetic consciousness of the Western World. Among designers, photographers, artists, and writers, you’ll hear the term, often as a defining paradigm for one’s own aesthetic or sense of beauty. As Leonard describes it in Wabi- Sabi: Further Thoughts, wabi-sabi was “a semantic construct that conceivably fit the pattern of aesthetic feeling-awareness—beauty—[he] was searching for.” Its definition feels inherently familiar. In fact, the first book of gave us a language for beauty that we might have already recognized but could not articulate.
In Further Thoughts, it’s clear that Leonard understands the reception of Wabi-Sabi in the past decade—he not only extends the dialogue he began in his first book, but also seeks to untangle misconceptions, clarify how wabi-sabi came to be, further illuminate its character, and contextualize wabi-sabi in the modern world. This is a book about what came before wabi-sabi and what lies ahead. “The ideas raised here are meant to engage you, the reader in a consideration of materality—the nature of—going forward into the future,” he writes.
Further Thoughts is not only an explication of a particular concept, but its also doubles as a manual for explaining how one might approach an abstract concept and “translate it into an intelligible form.” How can a mindset or phenomenon become a useful concept? Leonard explains his own process, giving a glimpse into his personal history with wabi-sabi. Along the way, he offers remarkable definitions for concepts that are difficult to fully convey, like beauty (“that complex of exciting, pleasurable sensations … that makes us feel more alive and connected to the world”) and elegance (“the graceful acceptance of restraint, inconvenience, and uncertainty”). This is where Leonard excels: "[conveying] the full sense ... of a concept, in words, the medium of explicitly stated ideas.” (I’m using his own words to describe his excellence).
Like his first book, Further Thoughts is a slim, unassuming volume, printed on gritty paper, with accompanying black-and-white photographs—these are design choices that he explains in the book under the heading “Rhetorical considerations.” As always, Leonard’s words are thoughtfully considered and impressively concise—poignant and wise. This book is at once more historical, more personal, and more modern than the first, but in both, Leonard writes not only about wabi-sabi: he’s also writing about language, about publishing books, about the philosophy of materiality, about ways of noticing and looking at the world.