I have just read the most wonderful comment on youth in the introduction of a book, the rest of which I do not own and cannot vouch for, but which might be worth owning for this line alone:

“Objects made of wood by children,” Smith once estimated, “. . . will assay ten percent wood, ninety percent nails.” And if his book’s title also works on the same principle of youthful overengineering, it’s because a belief in efficiency and quality construction is anathema to childhood. Waste rules―and what Smith knows is that if youth is wasted on the young, it’s because an adult would not waste it, and in so doing make it not youth.

The books title is How to do Nothing with Nobody all alone by Yourself. It is apparently a book about how to build things out of the sort of nothing that is always lying about. The author of the introduction is one Paul Collins, who deserves to become famous for this quote alone.

As it happens, I’ve been reading a lot of Joseph Conrad lately. He has a good deal to say about youth as well, but he’s focused more on the other end of youth, where childhood transitions into adulthood. In “The Shadow-Line” he says,

One closes behind one the little gate of mere boyishness–and enters an enchanted garden. Its very shades glow with promise. Every turn of the path has its seduction. And it isn’t because it is an undiscovered country. One knows well enough that all mankind has streamed that way. It is the charm of universal experience from which one expects an uncommon or personal sensation–a bit of one’s own.

But I don’t think Conrad quite got it right–or at any rate said it as well as it could be said. Youth is an undiscovered country–undiscovered by the young person experiencing it: the garden is “enchanted” because it is not yet known; its shadows, “full of promise” because their contents have yet to be seen; each bend in the path, “seductive” because you really have no idea what you may find around them.

Youth is the period of our lives when we fashion a world for ourselves. Like Adam we go about giving names to everything. We define what they mean to us. These definitions are not written in stone, but they are durable, and we carry most of them around with us for the rest of our lives. At the very least, they become our starting point.

I owe my love for Chengdu to that very process. I turned twenty-three during my first stay in Chengdu. China and Chengdu got into my blood because I was young. I walked the streets, climbed the mountains, ate the food, talked to the people, and made it all a part of my world. To put it more accurately: I crafted a world for myself in which China and Chengdu–as I knew them at the time–made sense. I did so the only way you can, by building them into myself. It’s rather like adding an addition to a house. It’s not just something extra, it changes the layout of the rest of the house just by being there.

It is one of the central ironies of life that the chief preoccupation of youth–giving form to the world–is the very thing that brings about youth’s end. To borrow Mr. Collins apt phrase, all that forming and defining “make it not youth.” Once we have a fair idea what lies around the next bend, the seduction is gone. Once the shadows become familiar, their promise fails them. Once the garden is known, it ceases to be enchanted.

Who can blame us for longing to return to youth?

But we’re mistaken, and travel is one of the few things that can reveal that mistake clearly to our eyes. We don’t really know what lurks around the next bend. We have only just begun to explore the shadows’ secrets. And the garden will always be enchanted.

Traveling to new places shows us how little we know about a world we thought we had tamed. Study can do the same, but it has to be intense. You have to reach deep, dive past the superficialities. Age should not be the death of youth but its enrichment. Experience should add subtlety without dimming wonder. Magnificent as our capacities are, no amount of honing them will ever exhaust life’s capacity to surprise us. That realization is one of the chief fruits of “reading ten thousand books and walking ten thousand miles 读万卷书行万里路.”

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