Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig, 2/5
Reading this philosophical novel was, for me, like trying to experience a song by simply reading the lyrics–I understood the words, but I couldn’t hear the “music.” I suspect this is due in part to my reflexive antipathy for the 1960s zeitgeist and a general shift away from academic thought in my life. However, I’d prefer to think that the fault is the author’s, for alternating arbitrarily-detailed descriptions of a motorcycle road trip with dry, preachy philosophical rants that fall into the trap described by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:
“…But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see (81).”
In an attempt to understand my negative experience with such a popular, respected book, I read a lot of user reviews afterwards and learned more about the author. I now know that the book is highly autobiographical and wonder if my dislike of it reflects a basic personal incompatibility with the author/narrator and a recognition of how his pursuit of personal catharsis might taint the intellectual integrity of his arguments. I didn’t feel any sort of sympathy, connection or respect for the main character, suspecting that I would dislike him if I met him in person, which is certainly not a great basis on which to approach a book. With this understanding, I might re-read it in a few years and see if I can get something more out of it than I did this time.
Why I read it: I was browsing Half Price Books for reading material for a trip to Scotland and recognized the title.
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, 5/5
Far from the tidy Victorian romance I expected, this short novel has a plot as fast-paced and dramatic as a play and stars a cast of four flawed personalities engaged in a brutal love rectangle. I enjoyed it as thoroughly as I later despised the shallow and cliched 2015 film version.
Why I read it: my sister, Grace, recommended it to me.
Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, 4/5
This true story wasn’t quite as readable as I’d expected, having been absolutely blown away by Hillenbrand’s later work Unbroken. I was partly to blame for approaching the book with a skepticism that made me look disconsolately for footnotes where there were none. For some reason, I just couldn’t escape the nagging question “does she really know what all the people in her story said and felt, or is she just making it all up?” I would have had a much more enjoyable experience if I’d read the end notes, acknowledgements and interview with the author at the end of the book first. These sources helped me realize the insane amount of time and energy Hillenbrand, already an accomplished equestrian author, put into researching the story of Seabiscuit.
I just have to point out how bizarre it is that the horse’s face didn’t make it onto the cover of the book! Even the image on the spine is of the jockey, not his famous steed.
Why I read it: I was looking for something light to read while traveling and Seabiscuit had been on my radar for quite a while.
It by Stephen King, 2/5
Stephen King is more than a popular writer, he’s a respected one, so I was excited to read one of his most famous books despite hating the 2017 film it inspired. Initially, I was impressed by the length and density of the plot, which caused me to forget characters’ names and refer back to previous chapters with an urgency not felt since I read War and Peace. However, after a while all the details and increasingly gross events lost their novelty and the thread of the story felt more like a patchwork of cliches. That same scattered aesthetic and uneven tone is what put me off the 2017 film version, which felt like 2 hours and 15 minutes of movie trailers for every horror film made in the last 40 years. I didn’t really experience any feelings of “horror” until near the end of the book, when I encountered King’s casual description of ritual group sex between children. At that point, I lost respect for the author and will likely not read anything else by him.
Why I read it: I was looking for something entertaining to read on the plane during our Scotland trip and while browsing in Half Price Books, realized I’d never read anything by Stephen King before.
The Field Guide: The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making by Rob Irving and John Lundberg, edited by Mark Pilkington, 2/5
This book, bizarrely, seems to affirm the mystic nature of crop circles (in the process, condoning the associated pseudo-science and quackery of self-styled “experts” in the field) while completely denying crop circles’ otherworldly origins so blatantly as to give instructions for their creation and to interview the men credited with starting the whole phenomenon back in the 1980s. At least, that’s what I understood from the rambling, incomplete sentences in this confused and cluttery little book, which is so deficient as to lack even good photographs of the patterns it describes. The only redeeming feature of this little disaster is the informative interviews with crop circle makers at the end.
Why I read it: the title caught my eye in a used bookstore.
Complete Poems 1904-1962 by E.E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage, 5/5
By turns beautiful and baffling, these poems seem less made to be read than absorbed. Many passages that stoutly resisted my best attempts at analysis revealed their meaning at a careless second glance, like stepping back from a painting far enough for the brushstrokes to blend together. Brushing aside petty rules of grammatical convention, Cummings covers the whole spectrum of poetic possibility, from grotesque to delicate, brutal to erotic (sometimes both at the same time–no judgment here), simple to incomprehensible.
Here’s one of my favorites that captures most of the things I love about Cummings:
the great advantage of being alive
(instead of undying)is not so much
that mind no more can disprove than prove
what heart may feel and soul may touch
–the great(my darling)happens to be
that love are in we,that love are in we
and here is a secret they never will share
for whom create is less than have
or one times one than when times where–
that we are in love,that we are in love:
with us they’ve nothing times nothing to do
(for love are in we am in i are in you)
this world(as timorous itsters all
to call their cowardice quite agree)
shall never discover our touch and feel
–for love are in we are in love are in we;
for you are and i am and we are(above
and under all possible worlds)in love
a billion brains may coax undeath
from fancied fact and spaceful time–
no heart can leap,no soul can breathe
but by the sizeless truth of a dream
whose sleep is the sky and the earth and the sea.
For love are in you am in i are in we
Why I read it: I hoped to find more poems like his famous “i carry your heart with me,” which I did! The following poem reminded me of it most because of its sweetness and simplicity:
skies may be blue;yes
(when gone are hail and sleet and snow)
but bluer than my darling’s eyes,
spring skies are no
hearts may be true;yes
(by night or day in joy or woe)
but truer than your lover’s is,
hearts do not grow
nows may be new;yes
(as new as april’s first hello)
but new as this our thousandth kiss,
no now is so
Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek, 2/5
Sinek poses an interesting premise: companies wishing to develop an extremely loyal customer base and have the greatest influence on society and industry must let a clear sense of why they do what they do influence all decisions about what and how. By communicating a sense of purpose and how this purpose fits into the bigger picture of life, a business can ostensibly attract similarly-minded, passionate customers and ultimately have the freedom to be more innovative and influential than the faceless corporations trapped in “features” battles with each other, desperate to manipulate buyers with endless “deals” and minute spec improvements. Sinek basically argues that companies should function like good people, with strong character, ethics and a sense of higher purpose, instead of being focused solely on the bottom line. In fact, he goes so far as to say that “The goal of business should not be to do business with anyone who simply wants what you have. It should be to focus on the people who believe what you believe. When we are selective about doing business only with those who believe in our WHY, trust emerges” (80).
While Sinek’s approach is thought-provoking, I see a clear conflict between it and a society that is rife with lawsuits against businesses who refuse to provide services, based on religious beliefs. I wish the author had addressed this issue instead of beating one simple idea to death with a tedious, repetitive writing style and relentless references to Apple Inc. Perhaps he also could have supplemented his few cherry-picked examples, by explaining why numerous industry-leading companies have achieved great success while clearly not following his why-centered philosophy. He also does not adequately address the connection between authenticity and advertising–couldn’t it be argued that the only difference between companies appearing to have a strong “why” and all the others is merely superior advertising strategies (not necessarily fundamental differences in philosophy and operation)?
Why I read it: My brother recommended it under circumstances I have since forgotten (I procrastinated on writing this review for far too long!).