I honestly thought I had read The Art of War. I was sure I must have! Then I saw it in a stately hardcover edition when I was at a Barnes and Noble back in 2005 — you know how they have that series, reprinting classics you should have read, sometimes offered at 3 for the price of 2? So I bought The Art of War, because I distinctly recall flicking through pages and thinking, nope, never read it. Just read lots of quotes from it, over the years.
Military science fiction writers, in particular, like to quote Sun Tzu. And I have read a lot of those books.
I finally read this ancient text today — that hardcover is going to look so gorgeous on my bookshelf — and it really is just a collection of quotes, in many ways. I spent the entire book nodding, appreciating the solid advice from a master strategist, and also an eminently practical and sensible person. But, you know, one often discussing the best ways to make war in mountainous, swampy and otherwise uneven ground. (This is rarely going to come up in my life, I feel.)
Each of the thirteen sections of the book — manual, really — cover a different facet of war, and of course, perhaps the most quoted and most applicable tenet Sun Tzu seeks to impart is how it is better not to go to war at all. (I’m paraphrasing.) But there are so many other pearls of wisdom in here that it is easy to see why it has become required reading in business and law schools, as well as at military academies.
Anyone in the cutthroat world of the arts should definitely read it, too. (“Plan for what it is difficult while it is easy, do what is great while it is small.” Just… excellent advice.)
The writing (or, I guess, translating) is swift, no nonsense and full of neat epigrams, the kind of sage advice that Mr. Miyagi might have given Daniel San, or that fairground Zoltar fortune telling machine might dispense if you put in a dollar. With an economy of language, Sun Tzu says much, and while The Art of War isn’t exactly gripping, it is very informative–which is almost better. I am somewhat startled to realize that it is one of the oldest surviving texts I have ever read, and yet I got so much out of it.
Because it is weirdly relevant, for a book believed to be over 2 500 years old. People, and the tactics we can use to thwart them, haven’t changed all that much in the intervening time, it turns out.
TBR DAY 9: The Art of War by Sun Tzu
GENRE: Military Strategy
PUBLISHED: 5th century BC
TIME ON THE TBR: 14 years.
PURCHASED FROM: Barnes and Noble, somewhere in New York.