Posts Tagged ‘Philosophy’

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

October 14, 2014

The AlchemistThis book is about a shepherd boy who takes risks and endures hardship to pursue his dream. At first, it reads like a simple fable written for a child, and the pace of the story developed ever so slowly. I had to read it for a book discussion so I stuck to it. Oh, how it has paid off! What a beautiful and purposeful book, just when I needed it: be patient and focus!

The Alchemist offers inspiration in such a way as if it has awakened the deep sleep of a hibernating bear that has finally felt hunger for food (spiritual food) and wanted to roar (come alive) again. It connects one back to an earlier life of an innocent age. Of a questing soul of a brave and pure spirit. Coelho knows I am not the only one who feels this way, even he is from Brazil, half the world away.

The Alchemist is a brilliantly crafted book with vivid descriptions of culture, people, and scenery to fill the imagination of any reader. It has been translated into 80 languages. We may be distracted with earthly desires or duties; it is never too late to feel young and ambitious again.

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The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

August 18, 2014

The Razor's EdgeThe Razor’s Edge (1944) is one of those classic books I never read. All I knew was that Bill Murray was roasted for his role as young Larry in the 1984 film. (Turns out there was a 1946 version , too, with Tyrone Power, Gene Tierney, Clifton Webb, Anne Baxter, and Elsa Lanchester.) The title alone, from the book’s epigraph, is more perplexing than beguiling.

The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over
Thus the wise say the past to Salvation is hard.

W. Somerset Maugham was one of the most popular writers of the day. He had commercial success with his novels, short stories, plays and films, and his masterpiece Of Human Bondage had been published in 1915. He had served in World War I as one of the British “Literary Ambulance Drivers”, and then as a spy. This experience supplied some background for his character Larry, a young man who had been a WWI aviator. When Larry returns to Chicago from the Great War, he is congenial enough, yet somewhat aimless. “I don’t know my purpose yet,” he replies to inquiries about his prospects. When offered a job as a broker in Chicago, however, he declines. His fiancé Isabel tells him “A man must work, Larry. It’s a matter of self-respect.” But Larry decides to go to Paris: “I think there I may be able to see my way before me.”

The Razor’s Edge was one of the first popular American novels to explore Eastern cultures, following the Transcendalists, and followed by the Beats in the 1950s. Maugham had visited an ashram in India, and talked with a well-known Hindu guru there. Larry tramps around Europe and India and absorbs much from fellow travelers and gurus, from the meaning of success, to the question of evil, to reincarnation, to the infinite.

If you have been asked, “What’s the use of knowledge if you’re not going to do anything with it?”, or can identify with the response, “Can anything in the world be more practical than to learn how to live to best advantage?”, read The Razor’s Edge.

If you like this book, you may also enjoy Siddhartha by Herman Hesse, or Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

April 4, 2013

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is one of the most influential authors the world has ever known.  Few novels have reached the lasting popularity of Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Crime and Punishment isn’t popular because it is near-impossible to read – it is popular because it instantly pulls the readers into the dark, sweaty, and paranoid vision of its world and then possesses its audience till the last sentence.
When Dostoyevsky began work on the book his circumstances were dire. After the author had gambled away his assets he was unable to pay bills and eat decently. The despair of his situation found its way into the novel and an actual double murder that he read about helped shape this suspenseful, idea driven novel.
But he was not met by much enthusiasm when he tried to sell his story. Eventually the author managed to find a publisher – a magazine, owned by his sworn enemy – and then work began on not one but two novels: Crime and Punishment and The Gambler. It was an enormous challenge, and if Dostoyevsky was on fire the heat is felt in Crime and Punishment when Rodian Raskolnikov feverishly stumbles through the streets of St. Petersburg, haunted by his deeds and – eventually, on some level – his longing for redemption.
For the former student Raskolnikov has killed a pawnbroker and her half-sister, and he thinks that the crime won’t matter in the great scheme of things if he uses the money to do good. But Raskolnikov’s true motivation is ideological – he simply believes that some humans stand above the established moral principles of society, and that anything is allowed if it’s in pursuit of a higher purpose.
But to think and to do are two different things, and the blood Raskolnikov has shed begins to haunt him. However, Raskolnikov is not troubled by the crime per se; no, instead he’s troubled by the fact that he is troubled by it – that he turns out to be an ordinary man and not a man who can ignore society’s moral code. Roughly 17 years later, Friedrich Nietzsche would find a name for the kind of man Raskolnikov wanted to be: der Übermensch – the Superman.
And as Raskolnikov’s world view crumbles, he begins to long for punishment, not noticing that he’s in the midst of it.
Then something unexpected happens, and her name is Sonya, a young woman with deep literary roots. Her story goes all the way back to Rahab of the book of Joshua, a woman who makes it possible for the tribe of Israel to enter the Promised Land. Much like Rahab, Sonya shows the path to a new kind of life.

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Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein

February 11, 2013

“I’ve never had much luck with the abstract concepts that make up the study of philosophy. That’s just not how my brain is wired. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t long to understand the basic tenets of existentialism, pragmatism, emotivism, et cetera. This book, which attempts to explain all this and more, using jokes to help clarify them, seemed like it would be worth a try. After all, as the authors explain, philosophical concepts and jokes do have similarities. Both “confound our sense of the way things are, flip our worlds upside down, and ferret out hidden, uncomfortable truths about life. What the philosopher calls an insight, the gagster calls a zinger.”

I discovered that not all philosophy is deep and murky.  The chapters on ethics, the philosophy of religion, and social and political philosophy mostly made sense to me, and were definitely enlivened by the jokes. But I fear that I may never quite grasp metaphysics, relativity or existentialism, no matter how many jokes I’m told.  Here’s one from the metaphysics chapter that illustrates the debate between metaphysicians and non-metaphysicians about infinity:   Two cows are standing in the pasture. One turns to the other and says, “Although pi is usually abbreviated to five numbers, it actually goes on into infinity.” The second cow turns to the first and says, “Moo.”

       The library owns this book in both print and audio versions. For a light introduction to basic philosophical concepts, I highly recommend either version. The audio misses out on the cartoons included in the book, but is narrated by Johnny Heller, who used to be a stand-up comedian, and so is perfect for the job. There is also a website is devoted to this book, complete with videos.

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Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse

November 29, 2012

This classic novel, set in India during the life of the Buddha, begins as a young man named Siddhartha decides to leave his parents’ home in search of inner knowledge, wisdom, and the renunciation of the Self. He joins the ascetics, and becomes adept at living a life of self-denial, but finds that he is still dissatisfied with the results. His Self is still with him. He listens to the teachings of the Buddha, but decides he must go his own way. The very short book (about 150 pages) follows his efforts and charts his ups and downs on the path to self-knowledge.

My book discussion group read this book recently, and the majority opinion was, “I didn’t enjoy the book, but I’m glad I read it.” I have to agree. The lack of reading enjoyment stems from the lack of character development. The people in the book are more Jungian archetypes than real people. (The author was a patient of Dr. Jung.) One group member made the excellent point that Siddhartha is not so much a novel as it is a book of religious philosophy. Hence the emphasis on Siddhartha’s inner life.

Does this mean I don’t recommend the book? Oh, no. Let’s concentrate on the second part of the sentence above, the “I’m glad I read it” part. Siddhartha is definitely worth reading even if it isn’t a thrill a minute. The character of Siddhartha is someone most of us can identify with as we struggle to understand ourselves and to decide how we want to live our lives.

For another take on this book, see my colleague Dan’s review from a few years ago.

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The Stranger by Albert Camus

October 8, 2012

When my book club discussed The Stranger by Albert Camus last month, we had a terrific discussion. Not because everyone loved the book, but because it provoked such a wide range of reactions.  Some couldn’t even say how they felt about this French classic, published in 1942. Instead they said that they “respected” the book, or they were “fascinated” by it.

I fall into the latter category. I was fascinated by this book and by the main character, a man named Meursault.  In Part One of the book, he is indifferent to pretty much everything and everybody in his life. Even at this mother’s funeral, his major consideration is the heat. He’s one of those people who “goes along to get along,” even agreeing to marry his girlfriend just because it means so much to her, and he doesn’t really care either way. Then he is sent to prison for killing a man—an act he commits for no discernible reason except that there was a gun in his pocket and the sun was so hot. In Part Two, Meursault struggles to come to terms with his new situation. He finally connects to the world around him, and discovers a new appreciation for it.

The Stranger is short and easy to read, deceptively simple. I have read this book three times and I still can’t say with any certainty just what the book is about.  Is it a critique of the French colonial justice system? Is it an allegory about French participation in the Holocaust? Is it an indictment of how the French treated the Arabs in Algeria? Is it a treatise against capital punishment? Is it a book about philosophy? Is it a general allegory about the inevitability of death? According to the members of my book club, it might be any of these. Read the book and take your pick!

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La Seduction: How the French Play the Game of Life by Elaine Sciolino

July 31, 2012

The success of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris (his highest grossing film in North America) may suggest that France still has a place in the American mind, where it has resided since the birth of this young nation. But is it the authentic France – France as it is – or a France of the imagination that Americans harbor? That question cannot be answered, as there are more than 300 million Americans. What can be claimed, though, is that the authentic France partly consists of that France of the imagination – Paris, for example, is romantic partly because the city is imagined to be romantic. Despite this, it is quite common that Americans tend to think of the French (or at least the Parisians) as brusque, and the French-American relationships have been stormy for a long time, almost since the very beginning. It is, to use a simplistic phrase, a clash of cultures, and over the years many Americans have attempted to explain French culture to their fellow compatriots.

La Seduction is Paris correspondent Elaine Sciolino’s contribution to the ongoing conversation, and even if the book is too closely tied to the journalist’s age group (not young) and socioeconomic altitude (wealthy) to be fair to France as a whole, La Seduction is insightful, informative, and entertaining. Sciolino lets the reader use her amused eyes as she observes the behavior of the French intelligentsia, guided by the desire to seduce (“séduir”), but while the correspondent does this she also reveals how deeply American (whatever that is) she remains, despite her years in France. The book, then, is not only a book about France, but also a book about America.

Her main question is: How do the French “play the game of life”? According to the journalist, it can be summarized in one word, “séduction,” and in France, “séduction” encompasses a “grand mosaic of meanings. What is constant,” she says, “is the intent: to attract or influence, to win over, even if just in fun.”

Even in this age of “déclinisme” – which began with the German invasion of 1940 – the French remain devoted to the “pursuit of pleasure and the need to be artful, exquisite, witty, and sensuous,” and the trait runs so deep that it has become part of the land- and cityscapes of France – the country itself is seductive. To quote the Gil Pender of Midnight in Paris, “What is it with this city? I need to write a letter to the Chamber of Commerce.”

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It’s Not Easy Being Green: and Other Things to Consider by Jim Henson, The Muppets and Friends

March 20, 2012

The critically acclaimed and publicly adored movie, The Muppets, comes out on DVD & Blu Ray today. So, I thought this would be a great time to review a wonderful little book written by the man who created the Muppets and brought joy and laughter (the world’s 3rd greatest gift) to millions.

This little green book is full of advice, quotations, stories, songs, and even some of Henson’s doodles from Jim, his friends and colleagues and his characters. It has an introduction by Jim’s daughter, Cheryl, and is divided into five “chapters,” each with a different theme. There’s Listen to Your Heart, Dynamite Determination, Together We’ll Nab It, It Starts When We’re Kids, and A Part of Everything and Everyone. The book is short and can easily be read in one sitting (depending on how much time one spends reminiscing about their favorite Muppet moments). Yet, it can also be re-read from time to time, or just picked up off the shelf and opened at random to find a little wisdom and perspective. A few of my favorite pieces of wisdom include:

If our “message” is anything, it’s a positive approach to life. That life is basically good. People are basically good.
– Jim

Jim was the fellow who uncorked the bottle, you know. He not only uncorked the bottle, he also shook it up.
– Frank Oz

Life’s a movie, write your own ending
Keep believing, keep pretending
We’ve done just what we set out to do
Thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you.
– Kermit and the Muppets

Of course the title comes from the song that Kermit — and Jim — were most famous for. One of the most famous renditions of this song is by Ray Charles, and this quote from him is one of the first entries in the book:

The words say ‘It’s not easy being green,’ but the song is about knowing who you are. And in it you hear Jim’s message most clearly. He believed that people are good and that they want to do their best and that no matter how or why we might be different from anybody else, we should learn to love who we are and be proud of it.

To bring out your own inner-Muppet, find and reserve this book in our catalog.

And, for even more Muppet-y advice, also see:

Solaris by Stanislaw Lem

February 21, 2012

Are you a fan of Polish science fiction? Do you fantasize about visiting the old stomping grounds of Stanislaw Lem – Lviv? Krakow? Do you venerate his name? If none of this applies to you, it is hereby suggested that you give Stanislaw Lem’s strange and hypnotic novel Solaris a chance.

When Kris Kelvin, a psychologist, after an extended and exhausting journey through space arrives to the planet Solaris, he is expecting a warm welcome. He has been sent to the planet to investigate the situation there, but instead of being received by fellow human beings his vessel is automatically transported to an empty hangar for spaceships, and the space station seems empty. When he begins to familiarize himself with the space station, what he sees bear witness of destruction and disintegration. Something unusual is going on here, and the process is not yet over. Kelvin becomes part of this process when he encounters a woman from his past – a woman he loved but lost to suicide.

But to describe the plot will not do Solaris justice. The inner and outer events are equally important and there is not necessarily a clear distinction between the two, and Solaris is a deeply psychological and philosophical tale about – well, read and find out for yourself, for this novel is on the most fundamental level a collaboration between the author and the reader and the reader’s will and ability to create meaning.

Stanislaw Lem once said that Solaris was an adventure in his career. He never planned the book, and he never thought that he could write a book like Solaris. The novel, he explained, came into existence through a process of self-organization.

Solaris was published in 1961 and Lem’s reputation as an author eventually began to grow, initially in the Federal Republic of Germany (or West Germany). Ultimately his fiction spread over the world and Solaris was filmed three times (twice in the Soviet Union – the second time around by Andrey Tarkovsky – and once in the U.S. by Steven Soderbergh). His books were translated to more than 40 languages and sold more than 30 million copies. Poland has a proud literary tradition, so it is not surprising that Polish authors every now and then reach international recognition. Lem’s themes tend to center on alienation, the problems of communication, and the relationship between mankind and technology. All this makes him an author that has endured the test of time, but Solaris especially reflects a speech by John F. Kennedy in 1960. “We stand today on the edge of a New Frontier […] the frontier of unknown opportunities and perils, the frontier of unfilled hopes and unfilled threats.”

Welcome to our  time. And Solaris.

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Daytripper by Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá

January 5, 2012

The lyrics of The Wailers’ song “Get Up, Stand Up” goes something like this (depending on the version), “Most people think / Great God will come from the sky / Take away everything / Make everybody feel high / But if you know what life is worth / You will look for yours on earth / And now you see the light / You stand up for your right.”

The song claims that you should not wait for justice until the afterlife. Life is right here, right now, created by the Most High and thus holy, and therefore social injustice should be fought wherever it is encountered (as injustice is a violation of life and hence a violation of God). In short: this life is what you have – use it wisely.

Which is easier said than done. Contemporary postmodern life can be a mind-numbing whirlwind and life and its precious moments may pass us by if we are not living the present moment, if we are instead living in an imagined future, a place and time where everything will be just right, where everything will fall into place. A sense of fulfillment is hardly possible if we are constantly looking ahead, planning for the next stage of the journey – fulfillment can perhaps only be experienced when we realize that this, the here and now, is all we have, and that it is all we will every have as the past is gone, the future hasn’t even occurred yet.

Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá’s graphic novel Daytripper is a ingenious contemplation on life and the preciousness of every day that we receive. The art work may remind the audience of Jean-Pierre Autheman, it’s as vivid as his graphic novels but not as raw; instead the art of Daytripper is rather tender and gentle.

And the tale of Moon and Bá is compassionate. The duo basically asks, What is important? And they suggest that every moment, every encounter, every social initiative is significant; they claim that it is important to dream, to follow dreams and visions, and to love whatever the world offers – its magic and its profanities. As in many tales about life, death plays a major role in Daytripper. For death is the price we pay for being alive – without death there would be no life.

To face death can be hard, but it can also be liberating. In the words of Steven P. Jobs: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”  This is what Daytripper is saying, too.

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