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Dreams of a Mobile Tea Library

March 06, 2009

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I am constantly thinking about books, and reference materials, and access to information. Naturally, some of the time I think about these things in relation to tea and what data I want to be able to find and how I want it to be available to me. In this massively electronically connected world I’ve become accustomed to being able to look up and access all manner of information online almost any time I need it. But there are some ways in which that informational landscape can not currently be tailored to suit my needs perfectly. Ideally I’d like to have, at my fingertips, a fully stocked, extensively searchable, portable tea reference library so that I could get to any piece of information I wanted at any time regardless of where I was. Laptops and smart phones are approaching this ideal, but are not specialized enough for the task, at least not through general searches or slogging through website reference resources or without a tremendous amount of set-up on my part. I could, I suppose, take one physically small laptop and fill it with PDFs and eBooks and website links about tea, but while that sounds kind of cool, it is completely impractical. There would also be a limit to what was available in the forms that would work for this method.

Electronic books like Amazon’s Kindle or Sony’s Reader Digital Book have the potential for providing me exactly what I’m looking for. They do have the drawback of lacking illustrations, which in tea research can sometimes be very important, but they can hold tremendous amounts of text-based information in many different languages. (These electronic book devices do have the capability of reading PDF files with images, but the PDF format increases the file size considerably, which reduces the amount of information that can be loaded on the device, so I’m not considering that a viable option.) Basically I want the device to have the capacity for at least 300 books and several blog feeds and magazines.

A wireless content delivery system is crucial to this mobile library concept, but even more integral to the idea is availability of a great deal of specialized content. Here’s where the issue becomes more relevant to people interested in tea and tea culture. It seems inevitable that more and more pieces of literature and other written works will be digitized and made available, but are tea reference materials in demand enough to justify their production? In trying to find out the answer to that question I investigated how many tea books are already available. There were more than I expected, but less than I would need.

iPhone Kindle ApplicationI was also curious about the reading experience of ebooks in miniature, so I did a test and downloaded the Kindle version of Kakuzo Okakura’s “The Book of Tea” into the Kindle application on my phone. The Kindle iPhone application is free and has a convenient feature on Amazon’s site where, with only one click, you can send a sample of the book to your phone. It was surprisingly easy to read, even on the tiny iPhone screen, which was kind of a cool experiment, but I didn’t see too many other historically important tea reference books that I would be willing to install, either on a Kindle or on my phone.

Lu Yu: Cha JingRelated to the availability of tea information, much to my frustration one of the best and most famous tea reference sources, Lu Yu’s Cha Jing (茶經, “The Classic of Tea”), written in the late 8th century during the Tang Dynasty, is also one of the least readily available, at least in English. It exists in physical book form in a 1995 edition translated by Francis Ross Carpenter and in a more recent French version. It is also available in the original Chinese on Project Guttenberg, which is extremely wonderful, but sadly not terribly useful for me because I can’t read Chinese. There are only 22 members of Library Thing who own it, which for me is a pretty reliable indication of rarity since it contains over thirty six million books. For a little more detail on the Cha Jing, there is an excellent summary of each of the ten chapters of the Cha Jing here.

To bring us back to the original topic, the Cha Jing is the kind of essential research material that would be ideal to have in portable electronic form. If there were a version of this historically important work available in a version with side-by-side English, Pinyin and Chinese available for the Kindle I would buy one immediately. I’ll be curious to see where mobile reading goes from here. It’s not there yet, but there are signs that a whole lot more information could become available and convenient, and also hopefully affordable. Perhaps it won’t satisfy my particular tea-niche desires, but I can dream.

Now that I think of it, a significant increase in the amount of time I am able to devote to reading would be awfully nice also.

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