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A book is like a garden carried in the pocket.

—Chinese proverb



photo by Catherine Castle (c)

I thought about this quote for a while, wondering about what this little proverb meant.


Perhaps the proverb means that when you have a book you’ll always have a bit of happiness in your pocket, since there is another Chinese proverb relating to gardens that says, “… if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden.” Reading a book definitely makes me happy.

Maybe carrying a garden in your pocket translates to beauty. There is no greater beauty than that of a well-tended, beautifully designed garden. I love to tour gardens. They give me ideas for my own yard, make me thrill at the color combinations and different plant textures. For me, with hidden vistas and surprises around the bend in the paths a well-thought-out garden is a thing to be admired and learned from. A well thought-out book filled with unexpected twists and turns is also a thing of beauty. The new turn of phrase, use of alliteration and metaphors and similes can make me stop reading and go, “Ahhh,” just like a garden can.

Or does the proverb refer to the way one can get lost in a book, like I lose track of time in my garden and forget to stay hydrated or forget to stop to eat? When I was a teenager I got so engrossed in books that my mother often accused me of ignoring her when I was reading. I wasn’t. In fact, I was so deep in those fictional worlds that I never heard her or the television or my siblings arguing. If the house had started burning down around me even the scream of the fire trucks wouldn’t have roused me from the pages. If you gave me a book, I’d be satisfied for hours or even days. The same thing still happens today. Just ask my hubby when I’m reading around suppertime.

It could be that the proverb only means reading is relaxing. I know I spent many a summer as a carefree teenager relaxing on the porch reading the stacks of books I’d dragged home from the library. The breeze blew gently, or not— if it was a particularly muggy day. I could hear the birds chirping, the leaves rustling, Mom banging pots and pans in the kitchen fixing lunch or dinner. Or sometimes I sat in the sun, squinting at the pages propped on my knees while ants marched up the aluminum chair legs from the grass beneath my chair as I fried my blond skin in UV sunlight. The fragrance of Mom’s garden flowers mingled with my coconut butter suntan oil.

I’m sure when this proverb was first spoken the ancients who said it didn’t know about the M. vaccea bacteria in the soil that reduces stress. But they did know that gardening reduced stress. Maybe not as you’re yanking that three-foot weed out of concrete-hard dirt, but definitely as you’re sitting post-weeding enjoying the fruits of your garden labors. When you combine the two things—reading and nature— I’m sure the relaxation effect has to double.

So as summer wanes, take heed of this Chinese proverb. Grab your book and a glass of iced tea and head outside. Find a beautiful vista and read. Read like your sanity depended on it, and don’t forget to look up occasionally and enjoy the Garden of Eden as you’re readin’.

Do you have a take on the meaning of this proverb? I’d love to hear it.