In the Spirit of the Search
This article studies the strange world of a Swedish encyclopedia writer and his 20 year pursuit to find rare material about Chinese-Western relations.
Writers of encyclopedias and reference books are a rare breed. They sometimes spend decades gathering material and conducting research for a small niche of readers. Reference books can’t be easily read because there are no characters or plots to drive the story, so this type of publications may remain hidden and unread in private book collections for years. Many of these books collect dust on library shelves, while their pages discolor with age.
However, for some scholars that is what makes reference books precious. By opening an unknown cover, many surprises can be revealed. Scholars can discover a new source of information that suddenly sends their research spiraling in a different direction. Likewise, book collectors can stumble onto a single detail that sends them across the globe for an antique manuscript. These little known books can bring people together in surprising ways. Bjorn Lowendahl, 67, has devoted his life to the study and description of such books. His pursuit of material about Chinese-Western relations has lasted over 20 years, which he has collated into a recent publication that took four years to write. He considers his efforts to worth all this time and energy, despite having only a limited readership, because his primary motivation is the passion for old books.
Bjorn Lowendahl is both a book collector and an encyclopedia writer. He has hunted down material as old as 1477 and found the first book ever published on the Chinese language in Europe (by John Webb in 1669). One book that he has tracked down is valued at over 2.5 million bath (written by Michal Piotr Boym in 1656), and he has even located a rare copy of Abbe de Francois-Timoleon Choisy’s Journal of a Voyage to Siam 1685-1686. Lowendahl lives his life surrounded by books. His collection is over 300 meters long, which is divided between his homes in Sweden and Thailand. This private library represents an “earthly paradise” for him. “Curiosity has always been the driving force in my daily work,” Lowebdahl says, “and I am particularly attracted to books previously unknown to me.”
As a dealer in old books since 1970, Lowendahl’s path led to David Mungello’s, Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins and Early Development of Western Sinology. This material inspired him to start collecting books about the relations between China and the Western world even though he couldn’t speak or read Chinese. In retrospect, he admits he was unaware of the magnitude of the undertaking, but once his imagination was stimulated, he circumnavigated the globe for over two decades tracking down material. More recently, the Internet has opened all types of windows for locating rare material. Lowendahl’s curiosity became stronger as his collection grew. “I got more and more involved and interested,” he explains, “I think it is most exciting when I find something published that is not related to my original search.” Eventually, he decided to publish his life’s research to share with other curious minds. From the outset, he planned to print a catalogue of his collection, and then he wanted to “find an institution, preferably in China, willing to take care of it as a whole and to make it available to future scholars,” he elaborates.
Book about books
The Elephant Press in Hua Hin recently published Lowendahl’s book at a limited run of 1,000 copies; 20 percent of which have already been sold to global markets. The main target audience includes libraries, antique book collectors and like-minded scholars. However, for the common reader this book can be intimidating. The title alone would scare many people away (Sino-Western Relations, Conceptions of China, Cultural Influences and the Development of Sinology: Disclosed in Western Printed Books 1477-1877). The two hard-backed cover volumes total over 700 pages with eight color plates, chronologically listing 1,550 books in order of publication date. Lowendahl describes the collation of each book in stark detail: author, title, edition, pagination, leaves, number of plates, type of binding, physical condition and basic content. Entries are written in a variety of scripts and over a dozen languages – English, Chinese, French, Portuguese, Italian, Swedish and Russian. Obviously, this book is not for casual reading. It is an encyclopedia for a special niche and a very select audience. However, this book about books is priceless for individuals hunting for obscure works.
In pursuit of the book
“It has been an exciting endeavor,” Lowendahl explains, “and a satisfying one each time a new piece was added to the puzzle.” However, he admits that his pursuit for antique books will never end since previously unknown material continues to reveal itself in unpredictable ways. He occasionally stumbles across remote references tucked inside a table of content, index, bibliography or appendix — sections overlooked by the average reader — and these small revelations trigger the pursuit for another rare book. He once stumbled across a book on the top shelf of a library that contained an inscription referring to a Swedish map produced in 1611. The mere knowledge of its existence sent him to Paris to find it. “I never give up once I have the idea in my head,” he confesses, “You have to have the [artifact] in your hand and look at it to know weather it is real or not.” The printing of his own book will attract like-minded scholars and collectors, who in turn will point him in the direction of other publications to search for. And the next round of pursuit begins.
The search continues
Although he is pleased to have finally published his project, Lowendahl admits that his work must go on because he would be depressed without it. He is now working on a supplementary guide and a brief history of Western books dealing with China. He is also tempted to start an entirely different path by collecting books related to Sanskrit. Ironically, after his catalogue was finally complete and printed, he found a rare book that he had spent over 20 years searching for (by Joachim Bouvet in 1697). Although he doesn’t believe in fate, he observes that sometimes you happen to find books in a way that tempt you consider it.