Li’s expertise is never in doubt and it ultimately saves Forest Bathing from itself.
Dr. Qing Li’s Forest Bathing: How Trees Can Help You Find Health and Happiness contains a powerful message about how the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku, or “forest bathing,” can quantifiably improve a person’s life. Unfortunately, that message is concealed by the book’s presentation, which makes it feel more like a travel brochure than the medical and spiritual manual it aspires to be. Though this presentation diminishes the book’s power Li’s expertise is never in doubt and ultimately saves Forest Bathing from itself.
The book details the practice of wandering through the forest and appreciating the peace that comes along with it. Li differentiates forest bathing from hiking, trekking and exercise in general (the exception being yoga), and instead posits that its power comes from experiencing the forest through all five senses.
Li begins his book with anecdotes related to how he himself found peace and satisfaction in the forest, and he blends these tidbits with facts about Japan’s forest-centric culture. This gentle introduction suits the peaceful subject-matter; if Li were to just bulldoze his readers with evidence of his authority it would diminish his overall thesis. He’s aided in this by the effective presentation of his research, which interprets the typical charts and graphs of medical texts through a water-color-tinged, tree-centric aesthetic.
Forest Bathing would have been far more effective if Li and the rest of the team behind the book had been confident in the visual style presented in these charts. However, perhaps fearing the manuscript lacked enough material for a book-length manuscript, they use awkwardly large fonts and an abundance of stock photos to fill up the rest of the book. The book thus feels like a printed PowerPoint presentation rather than a research-based project.
While an awkward layout diminishes its impact, key elements ensure that reading remains a positive experience. First and foremost is the author, who comes across as an authority in the field through evidence and anecdotes rather than repeated mentions of his impressive résumé. Throughout the text, Li appears to be genuinely concerned in helping readers to improve their lives rather than attempting to justify his research or “convert” others to his doctrine. While there is a spiritual angle to shinrin-yoku, it is nothing more than you would find in your average yoga class. Li does an excellent job of doing justice to his area of study without sacrificing the comfort of his readers, and his work never comes off as religious propaganda.
The book also provides insight into less widely known facets of Japanese culture, particularly the reverence for the natural world, particularly to forests and trees. Li is a well-read and globally aware author and includes an abundance of references that will help readers relate what they already know about Japan to his subject.
By the time they finish the book, curious readers will not only find research to support the practice of shinrin-yoku but also guidelines for how to incorporate it into their lives. However, the book would have been much more effective if the author and the publisher had trusted the material to stand on its own, brief as it might have been. Instead, the reliance on stock photos and unruly typesetting distracts from what might have been an even more powerful experience.