Find a comfortable chair

9 Jun


Courtesy of Thomas Scott aka 2nd Hand Smoke

nfc capThis may be a day late, but probably not a dollar short in light of the play (read ‘fracas’) over MRN’s upcoming 2nd Edition. I am posting this simply as one who has seen the real thing as displayed at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong and an owner of the 1st Edition. I haven’t seen a ‘hands-on’ perspective in the little reading I’ve done on forums, hence the details of my experience below. I will post this on a couple sites and then sign off.

I am the kind of person who follows forums of interest, but rarely if ever take part. I don’t know why that is, and I certainly don’t consider it a virtue. Perhaps I just like to eavesdrop on others’ conversations. I’m not one who feels ‘enlivened’ by tangling or wrestling on topics verbally, the lunging and parrying that takes place, and yet I confess I glean from the sparring of others (within propriety’s range). I’ll readily plead ‘guilty as charged’ if someone levels the charge of hypocrisy.

But before I say anything further, I feel I need to put forth a bit more as to any qualifications for speaking out, that is, how I justify my ‘breaking radio silence’:

1. I became aware of the 1st Edition of this tome and obtained a copy of it a number of years ago and have perused it with interest. I have been intrigued by the increasing postings related to the greatly anticipated and forthcoming 2nd Edition.

I am not an expert on cigars, but, like many of you, an amateur who, for various reasons (one serious one being financial) have enjoyed only the occasional fine cigar and have been intrigued with the aura and culture of cigars, and chagrined over a world in which they play a shrinking, though still rich and colorful, cultural role. Oh for the days when we weren’t so aware of the scientific, sterile warnings and consequences of imbibing a rich, fragrant draw and the sweet aroma of the wafting 2nd hand smoke that eventually permeates and perfumes our sacred places of indulgence!

Having said I am an amateur, my ‘covert’ coverage of the cigar community online has led to the sense of a consensus that MRN’s book is in a class of its own for those who derive some value from a connoisseur’s tasting opinions and from a thoroughly written and visual encyclopaedic presentation. While I agree in one way with the comment of one poster (Unfortunately this was said rather derogatorily regarding MRN, as in ‘Who needs his tasting notes? The good cigar is the cigar that pleases me.”– my paraphrase), I disagree with its premise. Certainly there must be a place for someone with the ‘connoisseur’s gift, the access to rare and exotic cigars, the passion for cigars, and hence the ‘educated’ palate for them, to make ‘relatively objective’ and truly comparative observations on taste and experience– someone like MRN seems to be.

2. I am a westerner, but have lived in Hong Kong for the past 22 years. Two points here: though I have not immersed myself in the local culture, I do have a first-hand, long-term exposure to it; secondly, I have had opportunity to view the 2nd Edition of MRN’s ‘Book’ (meaning, in terms of contents, just a bit more than what is included on a known website under ‘sample pages’), plus the infamous Bamboo Bookstand, at the Cohiba Cigar Divan at the Mandarin Oriental in Central on HK Island.

3. I am a lover of books, having a personal library of around 6000 volumes, many of which are your standard bound classic, but numerous ones which are exquisitely bound in the highest quality, many by hand, some going back to the mid 1800s.

4. Lastly, I am a life-long admirer of, and worker with, wood, including woods that are known for their beauty. I was born into a logging family, spent years gaining an intimate knowledge of woods by handling them and from a father who grew up in the remotest mountainous areas of the Pacific Northwest and whose family survived by hunting and building their own log cabin. I have built 3 houses out of wood by hand. I built furniture out of California Redwood Burl in San Francisco in the 1970s and sold it on Fisherman’s Wharf, exporting it all over the US and Europe and eastern Asia. I am a quasi-connoisseur of fine and beautiful woods. I’m sure many of you are drawn to the beauty and appreciation of beautiful wood products. I remember felling a maple (common to the Northwest) on my dad’s property. There were incredible ‘ripples’ in the wood in places where the bark had pealed off. I called an expert, greater than I, who practically skewered me for letting it lie so long after being felled. It ended up that one 30-foot log from it garnered me $7000USD (wholesale to me). The whole length had what is called fiddle-back grain of the highest quality. That wood has since been used in some of the highest quality acoustic and electric guitars made in Korea. I have built much of my own furniture. In HK, I live on an acre in the remote area of the New Territories. I have 2 chainsaws. After typhoons I would (a bit too old for it now) go out and cut up blow-downs and make them into clocks with crystal quartz movements. All this to say, I am not a novice when it comes to wood, its features and aesthetic qualities, and its durability according to application.

I really have no comment to make on the pricing of MRN’s book package or the choice of the author to release it in the way he has; it simply is a moot point for me. I could sell my 2 chainsaws and all my power tools and still fall quite short. I could sell my books and make it, but I prefer the literary diversity I have. I do, however, love it when I see a gorgeous Rolls Royce on the streets of Hong Kong, while never feeling a twinge of wanting to own one. Bit of an apples and bananas comparison, but I love what I have seen of MRN’s work without begrudging its inaccessibility.

As a further foreshadowing of my take since experiencing it first-hand: I believe that those several who have mentioned on various posts that they are going to re-mortgage their houses or cash in their wife’s frequent flyer miles or sell off the back 20 acres in order to obtain a copy—if you are that interested in a printed cigar magnum opus, I don’t think you will be sorry in the least.

To help you avoid what does not interest you, my comments are arranged accordingly:

1. Some very specific and detailed comments regarding the quality and construction of the Bamboo Bookstand, although I share the view that it is basically complimentary and that MRN probably, while he seems to have put a lot of time and energy into it, doesn’t give a rip what one does with it. My take on him is that it is a luxurious plus, and that whether it adorns your mansion (a man’s home is his castle, right?), or makes a nice, colorful backyard bonfire one night, is neither here nor there to him. So, warning, skip quite a ways down to get past the wood……, ah, grass!

2. Book binding and page/picture quality and resolution, and layout (i.e. comparisons made to Ansel Adams, etc.).

3. Quality of English (How many Chinese restaurants must one have frequented to make an objective comparison of MRN’s use of English with that of a Chinese waiter?, etc.)

First, the infamous Bamboo Bookstand. In NO WAY are my observations here meant to be a comment on the asking price of the book package– I like beautiful wood products– if you don’t, skip down a ways……

The bamboo bookstand needs to be seen in context of the man behind the whole work, MRN (to the extent that we can gain a sense of him based upon his work), as well as seen objectively.

The latter first.

People have preferences as to wood color, grain, etc., but barring those preferences, no one seeing the bookstand first-hand can say this is not a work of art and beauty as a bookstand. Yes, it is box-shaped. Who would put a wood box in their home just for art? Well, I confess, I have a couple wood boxes that are kept just for their beauty. But, this is a functional piece of art. Most people who can afford to purchase the encyclopaedia probably have a room in their house spacious enough such that the bookstand can be placed as a unique and aesthetic complement.

It is my impressions that the negative, sometimes derogatory (“Ikea-like”), comments regarding the box are undeserved and unbecoming in the manner in which they have been set forth, so much so that I believe they are motivated by little to do with the box, but with a ‘disgruntledness’ over the price of the Book Package: I can find no other explanation for someone posting some cheap pictures of book cases and equating MRN’s bookstand to an Ikea piece of furniture based only on a picture from a website, never having seen it first-hand.

I will make what I believe to be two true though contradictory-sounding statements about the bookstand:

1) I believe it was conceived and formed as a work of art (as a bookstand for his magnum opus) by the author out of his passion for his love of cigars and his love for his native culture.

2) I do not think ‘it’ (not just the price, but the whole event of the release of the 2nd Ed.) is about the bookstand at all as far as I ‘read’ the man behind it. I believe he would be the first to say ‘trash it’ if it ‘goes against your grain’.

I do think one has to get a little into ‘reading’ the man behind the ‘Book’ to understand the bamboo bookstand. My close-up viewing of the bookstand tells me that he approached it with the same passion and nearly insane obsession with perfection as he has approached the undertaking of the book.

Some may, understandably, want to include in ‘a reading of the man’ recent printed words of his that are reactionary in nature and employing *** (expletives deleted). Very, very unfortunate on his part, but my guess is that this issued from him feeling seriously misunderstood…… why?

You may not like the finished look of bamboo, but that is, frankly, not the point. Everyone knows that bamboo is a grass, not a wood, and the author’s ecological and charitable concerns are on record. But there is bamboo, and then there is bamboo. People in the west are probably becoming increasingly aware of the versatility and qualities of bamboo as fine-furniture or hardwood flooring material, but it is much more known and utilized in East Asia. (I have actually felled some of it that was over 50 feet tall with my chainsaw, and I have witnessed its beauty often in finished products of the highest class.)

The bamboo used in the bookstand has gorgeous visual quality. Beyond that, it is constructed immaculately and designed to withstand not only the 125-some pounds of books and reprints, etc., but about 20 monkeys sitting on top of it as well (although note that this would void the warranty! (I got down on the floor, behind, practically inside this thing.). This thing is so opposite Ikea-level that the comparison is like that of a paperback to an Easton Press or better leather-bound book.

I am who I am, so I go into detail on it: from least to most: the ebony inlaid wood lettering is immaculate, not the least so because, as I understand it, the author took all the inlay wood from one slab-scrap wood piece of ebony that had no commercial use, and because of this there is more variation and uniqueness in the grain and coloration of the ebony which will probably make each box unique. And the workmanship of inlay is perfect.

I doubt that anyone misjudged this from the picture, but to make sure I will point out that the round base pieces, both vertical and horizontal, are NOT simply lengths of one piece of round bamboo. These are made of long triangular-shaped (‘endo’) sections of solid bamboo horizontally compressed together into a ‘rough-rounded’ shape. We are talking massive strength, and as far as I can tell the joinery of horizontal to vertical pieces is rock-solid. The box is well-done dovetail.

The box, the flat surface, and the cross-supports just under the flat surface are made of vertically-compressed bamboo. The words ‘plywood’ and even ‘laminate’ should be thrown out here. Everyone in the west knows what plywood is, and this is the furthest thing from it. And I avoid ‘laminate’ because it suggests to many ‘veneer’.

What I would propose as the best analogy for the box, flat surface and its cross-braces is akin to a laminated beam. The individual pieces of bamboo are compressed against their wide surfaces, not their narrow edges. The dimensions of the box top, bottom and sides are such that ‘beam’ may seem a little odd to use, but anyone who knows what a laminated beam is will understand what I am trying to convey.

Proportionally, the cross-braces under the flat surface are closest to what we would picture for the term ‘laminated beam’. If the above confuses, sorry. Translate it as incredibly solid and strong. And, to my wood-loving eye, fascinatingly beautiful. The box (inside and out) and the flat surface upon which the box sits, along with its cross-supports, are finished smooth as silk.

Why bamboo? Here is where I think we get back to the man behind the inspiration. Many things suggest that the bookstand is an artistic expression of the author’s culture. This is seen not only in the choice of bamboo, but in the specific shape and symmetry in the curvature of the cross-braces below the flat surface. They are a perfect flow in diminishing circumference of the complementary curves that symbolize balance and harmony and peace in Chinese culture. Some may be familiar with the curvature in the yin and yang circle. If you are familiar with such, and trace and extend the diameter of the curves in this part of the bookstand, you will see what I mean by symmetry in both shape and in proportional diminishment. A bit hard to do from the website pictures, but crystal clear in the actual.

Not much more on the box. The front slips up nicely, just loose enough to slide easily, but tight enough to avoid that frustrating cross-bind while sliding. The front is heavy, so you don’t need to worry about the kids popping it off and coloring on the white book bindings. The curve inset at the top of the front for lifting has a pleasing curve and is just right for gaining purchase for lifting while not being aesthetically intrusive. I think the picture on Flying Cigar makes it clear the back can be slid down on the backside of the box.

The only possible oversight I can see is that it would have been nice to have a clear front to put in place of the wood front when one wants the books viewable but still somewhat protected. Anyone desiring it can have one made himself. If I were to own a set, I might consider tempered glass. The white books are classily contrasted as wrapped by and set upon the bamboo shell and base.

This thing is built to last, but if I were the seller and offering a Limited Lifetime Warranty, I would be covering myself in exactly the same way he is doing in the warranty. The warranty qualifiers about level floor surface and use of risers I am sure is due to the potential torqueing of the base that can happen given the weight of ‘The Book’, although I can’t imagine that base tweaking a bit if it stood on only three of its legs.

The Book: Binding, Paper, Layout, Resolution, in order:

Here I am neither a professional nor a technician, other than my life-long love for and acquisition of good books and what appeals to my eye. I say this as I have skimmed over some technical stuff on some of the posts regarding computer/print resolution technical capabilities that I don’t pretend to understand. I know MRN has gone into some detail as to camera used and other photographic aspects, so I leave that alone. What follows is simply my experience of my viewing of the books.

Binding: Looks to be high quality Smyth-sewn. Boards are very thick and back proportionately so. Nice, slight ‘softness’ to the surface of both, which I think is due to the thickness of the material used (superior to the soft-feel of my 1970 Encyclopedia Britannica set, which softness I think was effected by padding). Binding joints look about as solid as I’ve ever seen. The cover material is, to my best guess, some sort of silky-smooth, high-quality rubberized vinyl. Don’t quote me. When I say ‘rubberized’, don’t think like it ‘grabs’: the hand glides over it very smoothly. It’s not leather, and I think that’s a smart move in light of the special care required of leather in certain climactic conditions.

The look and feel of the material is plush and even a bit posh. It works with the visual appearance. Obvious to all who have looked at the pictures online, they are bound in plain white with black lettering. I like it. I can’t imagine messing up or ‘busy-ing-up’ something this size. It may come back to ‘reading’ the man behind the vision, a sort of ‘minimalism’ consistent with cultural elements here that would be consistent with the simplicity of the box and, frankly, the authorial voice he uses in the text. A little on the latter later (I love alliteration…).

I’ve never heard of anyone offering a Limited Lifetime Warranty before on a book, but I’m quite certain that the ‘caveats’ in the warranty are primarily owing to the size and weight of each volume. If I owned this set of books, I wouldn’t let anyone handle them. Sure, I would want to show them off, and I would do so by ME setting a volume out on a large table, and I would do the page turning for them. Not because it is flimsy, but because it is too nice to risk others’ handling. Many people don’t know how to handle a book this size and weight….. like how properly to turn large pages, how not to torque the binding, how not to wipe greasy fingers over pictures to see if they are 3D or not, etc. Who doesn’t have something in his home that elicits a cringe within when inexperienced hands draw near?

The effort behind, and the quality of, the whole encyclopaedia project lead me to believe that MRN will back his product to the hilt, but again, if I were in his shoes, I would be protecting myself. One must view the ‘restrictions of use’ aspects of the warranty in the context of the offering of a Limited Lifetime warranty.

Paper: higher quality, thicker, and slightly more glossy than the first edition, and also a bit whiter, to my eye, which makes the pictures and print contrast from their background better than in the 1st edition.

Layout: I don’t know what to say to some of you on the posts who have been critical of this. I felt all I saw to be spacious and extremely pleasing to the eye, well organized while artfully broken up with the charts, the photos/wrap-around text, the different sizes and colors of fonts, etc. I would imagine, given the small number of pages available, that final editing has not been done. Perhaps I will borrow from one poster in a parallel fashion: a book is aesthetically pleasing if it pleases my eye- I don’t need someone else to tell me what I like.

Resolution: Again, I am not a professional. I am very well acquainted with Ansel Adams and have poured over his photographs. I don’t know the pixel or ‘resolution numbers’ data between the two and don’t really care. I think one needs to keep in mind that we are not looking at Yosemite Park. Psychologically there is quite a difference between pictures of sweeping vistas and humidors. Maybe there is in reality as well (It’s a joke…..) I got my eye ‘right down on it’ and tried to be as critical as possible. My take in brief- this is the Ansel Adams of cigars (and associated ‘paraphernalia’), to understate the case.

I need not make the above stated opinion even as a comparison to other books on cigars or any books, period. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and perhaps it is an accumulation of the size along with the resolution, the content and arrangement, all working together. A related real-life analogy pops into my mind. I remember once seeing a gorgeous rose in a non-transparent vase (so I couldn’t see if there was water in it). It was so breathtaking that I remember thinking, “This is so perfect, it must be fake.” I was shocked to find out it was real, and caught up with a chuckle at myself at the irony of my thought- that fake is better than the real.

In a related ‘take’ on this analogy, the photographs in the book looked so real that I found it hard to believe they were only photographs. One literally feels one can lift a cigar right off the page. It was simply stunning, from the cigars themselves to the humidors to the first covers and certificates, page after page. It invites one simply to sit there and stare before engaging the text. The tri-fold page with the one cigar on top of the Cohiba 40 Aniversario Humidor- the texture, the pearl inlay—I found myself ‘taken up’– one forgets what one is looking at momentarily due to the resolution detail and the simplicity– one perfectly placed cigar.

I don’t know the technical aspects of photography and printing, but I love good pictures and (as of last week) I have 20/20 and 20/15 vision. Enough said.

We approach the end.

Quality of English (a.k.a. How many Chinese restaurants must one have frequented to make an objective comparison between MRN’s use of English and that of Chinese waiters?)

By virtue of living in Hong Kong for so long, I believe I am somewhat qualified to speak on the English capabilities of Chinese waiters.

If I were to give the gentleman who made this criticism against the English of MRN in these terms the benefit of the doubt, I could only do so by assuming that he had been to the highest caliber Chinese restaurants whose waiters had had long and vast experience with English-speaking clientele. But, alas, I have a strong hunch that he meant it to be critical, and it is with that possibility in mind that I make my final observations regarding the work of MRN.

If anyone on these forums has ever written a reference book on a very specific topic, let alone any book, in a language other than their own native tongue, please weigh in on the difficulty of doing so…. not just as to grammatical accuracy, but as to stylistic diversity and use of idiom, especially that which employs humor or figurative rhetoric.

“Very amicable cigars for those who find other models too rich or strong.” (“An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Post-Revolution Havana Cigars”, 1st Edition, 2nd reprint, July 2005, p. 71)

One of many examples of a creative manipulation of English, especially for one whose native tongue is not English.

Here we go again: one must not just read the book, but must attempt to read the man behind the book. Here is a quote from my 1st Edition, page VI, which I assume will be in the 2nd addition as well:

“English is not my mother-tongue and I hired no one to write on my behalf. I apologize in advance for incorrect usage and grammatical mistakes.”

As I ‘read’ it, along with the help of some assistants, MRN has handled all aspects of this project: writing (in a 2nd language to him), photography, designing and arranging binding, the research and the extensive acquisition of cigar treasures, and now the bookstand with his cultural identity integrated into it, etc. What does this say about the man?

While doing his best, I think something else is more important to him than the sterility of being 100% grammar-error proof. I am chagrined at his recent use of words online, but I have no difficulty understanding the force of the explosion conveyed by his words because of the immensity of his life-energy poured into this project, and in light of the nature and tone of some of the postings critical of it. But ‘immensity of energy poured into’ is, in truth, not enough, even in ‘my book’.

In terms of written qualities, I want clarity and exactness, ease of reading proportional to the topic and my level of understanding, clear organization of thought and presentation, pleasing tone and voice, visual beauty, to name a few aspects.

MRN’s book more than passes all of the above requirements in my opinion. I have lived in HK for 22 years. Everyday I face incomplete verbal transactions, whether it is asking about a compound miter chop saw at a hardware store, to giving taxi directions, to fending off the incorrect and abusive use of the words ‘of course’, to asking if a seat is taken or not, to having a question asked in the negative answered literally (which native-English speakers don’t do), to, yes, even to ordering food at Chinese restaurants.

MRN’s level of English as a 2nd language is nothing short of astounding. I have read numerous well-loved books by native-English speakers that I simply have had to put down because of the level of English or the flat voice. I DON’T believe the bottom line for MRN is jot and tittle. I believe he wanted to write it himself; hence his caveat at the beginning.

I don’t remember where I read online that he may have obtained the help of an “English professor” for the 2nd edition. It may have been someone’s surmising. I do remember that with the comment was something to the effect that “it’s not enough to get his commas and dashes in place; it would have been better to hire an author….” (my paraphrase from memory).

I think hiring an author would be the worst thing possible for this book. Again, his writing passes the above tests regardless of the occasional grammatical glitch or slightly stilted wording or phraseology. I think MRN wants this work to bear his stamp, and, in an oddly understandable way to me, that includes his preferring some idiosyncrasy, even inaccuracy, of language usage to remain that comprises that ‘stamp’, rather than the loss of his voice and ‘himself’ that would ensue were he to turn it over to the hands of an author or editor.

MRN’s style utilizes a lot of sentence fragments, ellipses, independently standing absolute phrases and other stand-alone phraseology and grammatical structures. It includes one-word sentences: “Avoid”. And he pulls it off. It works. Frankly, it would be a difficult style for many native speakers to pull off as well as he does, for at the same time, ironically, a distinct, personal conversational voice comes through. It feels at times as if I were in the same room and he were talking only to me. Obviously I don’t mean it is the same as if I were an active part of the conversation, but he successfully manages to avoid that stodgy, bland academic voice of so much reference writing.

It is an encyclopaedia that is not trying to masquerade as a piece of literature. There is necessary concision and succinctness, and yet a real man’s personality and causal voice of extensive experience coming through. This balancing act by an ESL author on such an esoteric subject is, I feel, laudable.

To sum it all up for me: I love my 1st Edition and what I have seen of the 2nd Edition. Totally my personal opinion with some basis to warrant speaking out on it. I think most of the fuel underlying many of the posting, especially the more inflammatory ones, has to do with the pricing, the limited number of editions, the plan of distribution, and not having access to it first-hand. There is no way that computers can convey the reality of the photographs; none that I’ve ever seen. I have no idea what MRN’s profit margins are, nor do I know what he does with the profit he makes. There are way too many unknowns and possibilities for me to judge or even hold an opinion on that. That’s his business and I don’t care.

One other possibility for some of the posts has crossed my mind as a way of making sense of them, and it wrings my innards even to think it. And that is the thought that some may feel, with regard to cigars, or whatever: “Can anything good come out of Hong Kong/China?” In this regard, I have deliberately chosen ‘the benefit of the doubt’ for all involved.

Although I have found some of the postings unbecoming and unwarranted, I have tried not to react so much as to give you the benefit of my access to the 2nd Edition display and my limited experience. If you got this far, thanks for reading. Ten-four, over and out.

Thomas Scott aka 2nd Hand Smoke


4 Responses to “Find a comfortable chair”

  1. Arild 10/06/2014 at 13:26 #

    What a fantastic writeup of the in life meeting with the new MRN book! I stand up and applaud!

    • Lestat39a 11/06/2014 at 01:25 #

      I agree totally – great read and fantastic insight!

  2. Keith 11/06/2014 at 10:20 #

    A very well thought out and insightfully thorough review. Part of me wanted more pictures (envious me), but it would definitely go against the gist of your review, and the thought that both words and pictures are hard to convey the breadth of this work.

    Very well done. Thanks so much for sharing. Cheers.