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.
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.
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!).
Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, 2/5
Holy cherry-picked data, Batman! At least it’s hand-picked, I guess? That is about the nicest thing I can say for this book, which, though entertaining, smells like bad science. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but I think I’ve been exposed to enough good research and logical reasoning (thank you Daniel Kahneman and David Hackett Fisher) to recognize the sketchy stuff. The thesis is all over the place, ending with a laughable call to action that sounds great on the surface (let’s give everyone the same opportunities in life so they can all achieve success) but is idiotic in context (let’s wave our enlightened magic fairy wand and give everyone identical backgrounds, community, family legacy, historical timing, interests and skills, so everyone can be super successful genius millionaires). Frustratingly, this book’s popularity was inevitable–who doesn’t like to read a good success story AND be told that it isn’t all due to talent, you unluckily ordinary human being with untold potential, you.
Why I read it: Heard about it from my Dad, who thought it would be fun if I read it (I’ve been avoiding Gladwell for years).
Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy by Jostein Gaarder, translated by Paulette Møller, 2/5
The most thought-provoking aspect of this reading experience was simply trying to understand how a book featuring such peculiarly bad writing could be published at all, much less become an “international bestseller.” Half of it consists of dialogue between two-dimensional characters, so stilted and unnatural it has to be read to be believed. The other half reads like increasingly vague course descriptions for philosophy classes taught by someone who considers Wikipedia articles to be the pinnacle of literary accomplishment through the ages. In my experience, fiction writing this bad generally relies on themes like sex, mystery or fantasy to attract readers, so I guess in a twisted way this book’s very existence is a testament to the powerful appeal of philosophical ideas and the ubiquity of existential angst.
Why I read it: recommended to me by a gym friend.
The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch with Jeffrey Zaslow, 2/5
Is it the mystery of death or mere crass curiosity that makes people so fascinated by “last words”? For whatever reason, the appeal is undeniable. However, it is also undeniable that everyone dies and, heartless as it may sound, imminent death is no philosophical or literary credential. Mostly according to himself, Pausch was a great success as a human being: intelligent, successful, hard-working, loved and loving…but this short book somehow still left ample opportunity for me to repeatedly wonder when it was going to get profound, insightful, or helpful in any way. It felt rather like a Wikipedia article written about someone, not because they had such a noteworthy effect on the world that it deserved lasting mention, but merely because they died. (Interestingly, I later looked up Pausch’s Wikipedia article and that is almost exactly what happened–it was created the month he got his terminal diagnosis, not at any time during his career). Perhaps people who are dealing with life-threatening illness would have a different perspective, but I felt this book had very little to offer besides voyeuristic appeal, though I’m sure that as a memoir for his family, it is beyond value.
Why I read it: My gym friend, Tyler, thought I might enjoy it and lent me his copy.