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.
Another Roadside Attraction by Tom Robbins, 3/5
I really wanted to like this book (given to me by a friend to whom it means a lot) and for about two-thirds of it, I succeeded more or less. I’ve never been a fan of the hippy aesthetic, but Robbins’ writing style is humorously bizarre, featuring inventive descriptions and colorful characters, set in familiar Pacific Northwest locations. I found the non-linear narrative style to be stressful at first, but ultimately rewarding, and was interested in the unique plot and development of the theme–how best should human spirituality express itself in a post-Christian world?
However, I eventually became irked by the novel’s increasing preachiness. What starts as a quirky, raunchy story gradually turns into a hippy manifesto that preaches a muddled pop-paganism full of weed-infused platitudes while tearing apart a weak version of Christianity created by the author only to be destroyed. I dislike being preached at, especially by philosophical novels, where practically any point can be “proven” in the highly-controlled universe of an author’s creation. The temptation to commit the straw man fallacy generally proves too strong to resist in these cases and the level of intellectual integrity required for useful discussion of philosophical matters is difficult to attain amidst distractions of story and style. Perhaps someone from a less religious background than I could easily get past these concerns, but I found them distracting enough in this case to mar my enjoyment of the book.
Why I read it: A thoughtful Christmas present from a friend.
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 Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, translated by Sir David Ross, 3/5
It took several attempts over a span of many months for me to get through this short book, in which Aristotle addresses topics of timeless interest, such as happiness, virtue, and friendship. The difficulty of this book lies, for me, not so much in the complexity of the ideas but in the general lack of reasoning provided to support them. A few moments of profundity are obscured by mundane observations, personal opinions (unsupported by fact) and attempts to force nebulous concepts into various organizational schemes. At first, I felt frustrated and disappointed that the Nicomachean Ethics, similar to Plato’s Phaedo, did not meet my expectations. However, after reading the Wikipedia article and a helpful lecture on the topic, it became clearer to me that this book’s value is more in the framework it provides for discussion and thought than for any definitive claims it makes. To me, it represents just the beginnings of thought on a complicated topic, made more remarkable by its age and practical, community-centered perspective on morality. Though its broader themes are difficult to grasp, it does reward a casual reading with the always-fascinating insight that human nature has not changed over thousands of years, and occasional gems like this:
But we must not follow those who advise us, being men, to think of human things, and, being mortal, of mortal things, but must, so far as we can, make ourselves immortal, and strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us; for even if it be small in bulk, much more does it in power and worth surpass everything (265).
Why I read it: C.S. Lewis referenced it in The Abolition of Man so I recognized the title while book shopping in Wales.
Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer by Friedrich Nietzsche, 1/5
Nietzsche’s opinions are as monstrous as his ego and as depressing as his life. With supreme self-confidence, he makes sweeping statements about human nature, existence, and philosophy, while generally avoiding any in-depth analysis or reasoning that might substantiate his sensational claims. His writing is so bizarre and baseless that I felt compelled to look him up on Wikipedia and try to figure out why on earth he gained so much credibility in the philosophy world. The exercise was unreassuring. It seems that Nietzsche’s primary life experiences were academic, he was socially isolated, addicted to drugs, extremely resentful of his religious upbringing and was actually residing in a mental institute when this book was published. Not exactly the sort of person you’d want to turn to for theories about life, the universe and everything. Usually, I’d try to write more specifically about the contents of this book so that I could remember it, but in this case, I’d be more than happy to forget that this particular collection of ravings even exists.
Why I read it: Recognized the title while browsing in the thrift store.
The rare combination of humility and genius is as beautiful as it is surprising, especially when encountered in one of the greatest physicists of the modern age. These three lectures, given at the University of Washington in 1963, explore a variety of unscientific topics–from politics to religion–and surprisingly, do not provide any answers. What they do give, however, is the opportunity to see non-scientific issues from the point of view of a scientific genius. This point of view is very different from the arrogant, condescending, closed-minded attitude that comes across from many figures in popular science, who seem to feel that their expertise in a narrow field qualifies them to make pronouncements on everything. In fact, the emotion that stands out most in these lectures is doubt. Not a lazy, depressing, hopeless sort of doubt, but a humble, searching doubt that fuels relentless curiosity. Feynman seems unwaveringly respectful of opinions and beliefs that contradict his own, while applying a formidable intellect and rational approach to the less scientific aspects of human existence.
Why I read it: I’ve enjoyed the two other books by Feynman I’ve read (QED and Six Easy Pieces) and jumped at the chance to read a less challenging book by him when I came across it in Henderson Books.
Decrying modern science and philosophy’s complete inadequacy to answer such endemic existential questions as “What does it all mean?” or “What am I supposed to do with my life?”, Schumacher creates a short but convincing argument for a more spiritual approach to life that transcends fact-based logic and the “nothing-but-ness” that characterizes modern thinking.
The backbone of the book is Schumacher’s categorization of “levels of being” into four vertical dimensions and the human experience into four “fields of knowledge” as follows:
Four Levels of Being:
Mineral = m
Plant = m + x
Animal = m + x + y
Man = m + x + y + z
(Where m=physical existence, x=life, y=consciousness and z=self-awareness)
Four Fields of Knowledge:
I–inner; that is, “what do I feel like?”
The world (you)–inner; “what do you feel like?”
I–outer; “what do I look like?”
The world (you)–outer; “what do you look like?”
As I understand, Schumacher basically argues that the mysterious, fundamental differences between levels of being, which science is unable to explain or reproduce, are evidence that life is bigger than logic and man is more than a favorable arrangement of atoms and random chemical reactions. He points out that by allowing science to overstep its bounds by making philosophical, ontological claims, and by limiting philosophy to proof-based, rigorously logical, “dead” arguments, human existence is robbed of richness and mankind renders itself unable to realise its full potential and humanity. According to Schumacher, an enlightened person who believes that “the slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the most certain knowledge obtained of lesser things” (3) is more equipped to deal with the many and varied divergent problems in life (“divergent” meaning polarizing issues for which logical solutions are difficult or impossible to find).
Despite a powerful opening, I found some parts of the book to be unconvincing and outdated; also, I was hoping to find something a bit more practically helpful than being told that happiness and a rich, fulfilling life can be achieved by cultivating the four fields of knowledge and striving towards levels of being above myself. However, the whole effect was undeniably challenging and uplifting–it is refreshing to read a philosophical treatise written to the end of ennobling man and celebrating the mysterious, temporary and fragile existence we each call life.
[Why I read it: I enjoyed Schumacher’s philosophy much more than his economics in Small is Beautiful, so this book sounded appealing.]