Edmund de Waal's "white road": journey into an obsession, or a pilgrimage of sorts?

The US edition of "The White Road: Journey into an Obsession," Edmund de Waal's story of his exploration of the history of porcelain, is now available. It includes the story of Josiah Wedgwood's successful search for kaolin in the Cherokee nation, which we learned from Alex Glover's Clay Club presentation about the Wedgwood Cherokee connection was likely near Franklin, North Carolina, west of Asheville.

Full disclosure: I have not read it. I came across reviews and other coverage of de Waal's book while reading about some of the earlier European porcelain experimentation, like the Medici porcelain of the late 16th century. I was interested to know if his book included that part of the porcelain story. From what I've read, it does not. Other parts of the porcelain story interest me too, but, based on some of the reviews of the book, I'm not sure I'll be in a hurry to read it, though I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has.

In the UK, the full title is, "The White Road: a pilgrimage of sorts," which sounds like a more meandering read than a "journey into an obsession." De Waal talked about the different subtitles in an interview with Paul Holdengräber at the New York Public Library:

EDMUND DE WAAL: Okay, this is really interesting, it’s lucky that there are only of two of us here talking about this because actually this is quite difficult territory here. Okay, so okay, it’s got different titles, it’s got different subtitles. So in England it’s called A Pilgrimage of Sorts.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And I love the “of Sorts.”

EDMUND DE WAAL: So that’s me, being English, it’s slightly self-deprecating, which is my to go to place in public, just not looking at anyone out there at all. So it’s “A Pilgrimage of Sorts.” So the history of that is it is a pilgrimage of sorts, it’s me trying to work out who I am, midlife crisis stuff, it’s really a pilgrimage to real places and to real people and it’s “of sorts,” so that’s fine. And here it’s “Journey into an Obsession,” (laughter) which is the other side of me, which is hugely focused, incredibly ambitious and scared, obsession. “Journey into an Obsession.” So there are two bits of me here, two different subtitles. Is that what you wanted me to say?

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I didn’t want you to—the greatness of speaking with someone is I don’t want you to say anything in particular.

EDMUND DE WAAL: It’s like psychotherapy this is, then.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Yeah. You asked who could not be obsessed?

EDMUND DE WAAL: Yes, who could not be obsessed?

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Who could not be obsessed by this? And it sort of reminds me of that wonderful line of Lessing, who says that “all passions, even unpleasant, are as passions pleasant.”


PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And who, even if—

EDMUND DE WAAL: And I answer that. I say that’s a stupid rhetorical question and I start to make a list of all the people who couldn’t, who aren’t obsessed by porcelain, that’s, you know, but at the heart of the obsession with porcelain, which isn’t a footnote, it’s a real profound story about purity, about trying to make something which is totally white in the world. It’s about—it’s about scarcity, it’s about the most precious material in the world, it’s about something which has come right across the globe, and it’s about danger. You know, it’s a proper, proper area of obsession. It’s not about crockery. It’s not about crockery. It’s about something—it’s—my epigraph is “what is this thing of whiteness?” It’s Moby-Dick. “What is this thing of whiteness?” It’s a proper area of obsession. And the people have been obsessed, I kind of pick them well, you know, there are some really extraordinary people whose lives have been taken apart by this.

(The transcript of the interview is available here: http://www.nypl.org/sites/default/files/events/LIVEdeWaal_11.16Transcript.doc)

Here's an excerpt from the New York Times review of the book:

"Don’t, however, conclude from this that “The White Road” matches “The Hare With Amber Eyes” in storytelling aplomb. It is a diffuse and often tortured book, full of clouded narrative lines and vague poetical musings that strain too hard after the momentous."


This one-star review from The Telegraph is also pretty harsh:

"Gnomic questions ('What defines you? What is the sound of white?') create an illusion of depth. 'What is white?' de Waal asks, looking at the walls of his studio. 'White is the colour of mourning, because it folds all colours within it.' 'It is white," he says of a ball of clay, 'returning to white. This moment, this pause, holds a kind of grandeur.' In Russia, 'whiteness is a revolution', and the whiteness of St Petersburg porcelain 'is like the clearing of the throat'. He used to get away with statements such as 'I hear objects', but now they sound as though he were sermonising on his own sensibility. Spoilt by success, it is as if de Waal, in trying to impersonate his former voice, has produced a self-parody.


"Most of what we might learn about 17th-century porcelain is lost in this miasma of meditation. We cannot locate his sources or further our research because de Waal has provided no footnotes or bibliography, a curious omission for an author who seemed so set on the 'paying of dues to those that have gone before'."

The lack of footnotes came up in the New York Public Library interview, too:

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: And then there’s another way of writing it which is in this fragmentary style and with no footnotes, but if you want footnotes, you can go to this website, you say, “Further reading: There’s a vast literature on porcelain, its manufacture, and consumption. For a guide to those I have found most useful, with signposts towards books and articles that may prove illuminating, please see”—are you ready?—“www.edmunddewaal.com/writing.” (laughter) That is not condescension. That is about appetite.

EDMUND DE WAAL: Okay. So if you want to look up my unbelievably learned research, there’s forty-five pages of further reading. But—

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: I know. I mean, I didn’t read it all, but I looked how long it was.

EDMUND DE WAAL: But, but, but, if you pick up a book, if you pick up a book, if you’re in a—if you pick up a book, and you see that there are forty-five pages of further reading at the end, you know, you may choose to read it, you may choose to put it back on the bookshelf. What I wanted to do was to write a book that you could read in the bath. I wanted to write a book that you actually wanted to read and not feel the swell of scholarship, you know, that actually if you want to go and look things up—

EDMUND DE WAAL: I’m so happy, I’m so happy, and you’ve given the tagline of where it is, but similarly, I didn’t want to have a book where it was just, what I hate, luckily, yes, I started the sentence and I’m going to finish it.

PAUL HOLDENGRÄBER: Maybe differently than you imagined you would start it.

EDMUND DE WAAL: So what I hate are books where you pick them up and you open them, and there are like twenty color plates, color photographs, in the middle, you know, and it’s just like all those images have been sucked into the middle of the book, (laughter) and they’ve all exactly got the same kind of color separation on them, and they’re all kind of glossy, and so you’ve got the text, you know, you’re reading your text, and it says, “see plate 17,” and you kind of do this and it’s a glossy photograph, and so as you will notice there are out-of-focus black-and-white photographs in this book in the manner of Sebald, because actually what this is is a book for reading.

Maybe somebody took note of the laughter from the audience, because now you can go to www.thewhiteroadbook.com for some information, including a few suggested readings about South Carolina (apparently a reference to the finding of kaolin in North Carolina, which included passage through South Carolina). I'm not sure if I'm missing something, but there are not 45 pages of further reading listed there, although the porcelain literature is indeed vast. (There are two "further reading" pages on the site and one led me to an error message. This one worked for me: http://www.thewhiteroadbook.com/resources-list/further-reading.)

The book comes off sounding like a mishmash of a navel-gazing, unedited travel journal and a half-hearted scholarly tome. De Waal (or his publisher, or whoever made the change) may be on to something with the two different subtitles.

Find "The White Road" in a library on WorldCat or see options for buying it on Google Books.