Book Review: 'Tales of Wonder' by Huston Smith

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Sunday, May 24, 2009


Adventures Chasing the Divine, an Autobiography

By Huston Smith, with Jeffery Paine.

Harper Collins. 209 pp. $25.99

Midway through his lush new memoir, the religious scholar Huston Smith pauses to rattle off a list of fond remembrances: dancing among the whirling dervishes in Iran, camping with the Aborigines in Australia, sharing a chuckle with a gaggle of Masai warriors on the darkening Serengeti plains. Each anecdote is offered up with minimum explication and just a few choice adjectives, as if Smith's sense of marvel at the strange bounty of the world should suffice. And in most cases, it does.

"Tales of Wonder," co-written with Jeffery Paine, opens in the medieval town of Soochow, China, where Smith's parents served as missionaries, and ends, some 200 pages later, with a quote from Saint John Chrysostom: "Praise for everything. Praise for it all!" In between, Smith meets with some of the 20th century's major luminaries -- Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Martin Luther King, Jr. -- and sets out to carve his own name into the face of history. When he was just shy of 40, Smith published his opus "The World's Religions," a now classic study of comparative theology. Its popularity opened the door to a series of professorial posts and several trips around the globe, each one more spectacular than the last. "For me," confides Smith, now nearly 90, "any real reason to travel, even a bad one, was a good reason to pack my bags and set off. If a place was on the map, and especially if it wasn't, I wanted to go and learn what could be learned only there."

-- Matthew Shaer

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