If you aren't already familiar with the Tao Te Ching, the title of Jessie Kanzer's first book Don't Just Sit There, DO NOTHING may register as bumper sticker humor. However, the second most translated book in the world has a lot more than bumper stickers to offer. It is such a rich source of wisdom and guidance that it can withstand adaptation and textual criticism in much the same way that the plays of Shakespeare are successfully refocused time and time again. Why bring this up? Because this book is a sort of memoir serving as the lens through which to view the Tao Te Ching and some of the lessons that our author finds most valuable.
To be fair, the memoir could easily stand on its own as a look into a fascinating life. Born in the Soviet Union, Kanzer (nee Bronfman) and her family reached asylum in the United States (after a stressful waiting game played out in Italy and Austria) in 1989. As you can probably guess, this was a cauldron of turbulence and upheaval for an 8-year-old. The subsequent arc of her life was complicated, messy, and at times bordering on tragic, but fortunately for both Kanzer and her readers she came through on the other side with some fascinating perspectives on the tools needed to succeed in modern life. Her top-line, number one with a bullet suggestion? Redefine "success", or at least don't let the outside world define it for you. Naturally an idea so broad as that would be practically useless on its own, but she is just getting started. Broken into three sections - identity, awareness, and creation - we are presented more than 45 chapters that focus on a portion of the Tao Te Ching in direct translation, followed by the author's "digested" (my word) version of it, and then a mostly-sequential sharing of key moments in her life. By the end of the book you have had her journey revealed to you as well as her wisdom and perceptiveness; a neat trick that she pulls off smoothly. She is obviously a passionate student of the Tao but she is not pedantic or reverential. Chapter 6, for example, begins with the lovely verse 8 which reads, in part:
The supreme good is like water,
for water benefits all things and goes against none of them.
It provides for all and even cleanses those places a man is loath to go.
Therefore, it is like the Tao.
She then *immediately* shifts gears to recall that she once sought advice from her brother during a drama in her life.
“Be like water,” he told me, “just roll over shit and say, ‘Fuck this, I’m water.’”
She doesn't just end there, obviously, but this encapsulates the tone of her writing. She goes on to relate a few more details of the anecdote before gradually pulling the lens back to focus on the moment, then the general period of her life, and eventually the lesson for life in its entirety. Because the method is oft repeated you may occasionally feel a sense of repetition, but it remains an effective tool for her to share reasoning from beginning to end.
When I was presented with this book my first reaction was something along the lines of "oh great, volume 416 in the Great Self Help Pablum series from Time Life Books". How happy I am to be wrong! A healthy rigor to the study of the Tao Te Ching coupled with Kanzer's unusual life circumstances through which to filter her (and our) understanding makes for a valuable and engaging read. I'd recommend this to anyone, save perhaps those who already make a deep study of the Tao Te Ching and might then find the work a bit rudimentary. Then again, that devoted a student would probably enjoy walking to the same places along different paths, so in fact let's just call it a good book for any and all.
~review by Wanderer
Author: Jessie Asya Kanzer
Hampton Roads Publishing, 2022
258 pp., $18.95