A spiritual classic about finding your own way. This book helped me find the courage to move on from the spiritual tradition of my parents. It was als...moreA spiritual classic about finding your own way. This book helped me find the courage to move on from the spiritual tradition of my parents. It was also the inspiration for the classic Yes epic "Close to the Edge." No, really, it was. So it holds a special place in my heart for a couple of reasons. (less)
This book is a cautionary tale, a stinging indictment of a culture that's lost its way. But believe it or not, it's absolutely hilarious, as long as y...moreThis book is a cautionary tale, a stinging indictment of a culture that's lost its way. But believe it or not, it's absolutely hilarious, as long as you aren't afraid to have your cherished beliefs held up to scorn and ridicule, and as long as you're open to learning a lesson from it. In short, if you can laugh at yourself and at what we've become as a society, you'll have a fantastic time reading this imposing book.
In chapter-and-verse form (complete with an intercolumn reference), Laird lays out the history of the world from the perspective of an intellectually lazy modern mind that's been educated by TV and has been conditioned to think in terms of short-term gain and instant gratification. If you've ever seen Mike Judge's excellent movie "Idiocracy," you'll have some idea of the perspective from which this book is written.
Laird seems to think this sorry state of affairs began with the baby boomer generation. The messiah of the "New Testament" equivalent of the book is Harry, a con man who came of age during the era of the hippies and preaches a narcissistic message of "Desire, Certainty, and Blame." Get what you can, jump to conclusions, and if something goes wrong, it's somebody else's fault.
When the rot set in is open for debate, of course, but when you read this book and then look around you at a postmodern world where the most important thing in people's lives is who wins a reality show, and the hottest debate is which presidential candidate doesn't wear a flag pin on his lapel, you can easily get yourself depressed and say that Laird got it right. In fact, as you cringe at the toxic mixture of ignorance and indifference in the narrative, it is not a huge stretch to imagine having just such a conversation with some halfwits whom classical education failed miserably. You know the type -- they couldn't tell you the first thing about American history if their lives depended on it. They probably couldn't find America on a map of the world, for that matter. Hell, they probably couldn't even spell "America" if you spotted them the vowels.
In Laird's story, these people are the punks, and in a cruel twist, the only hope for saving humanity is in their hands. Of all people, these violent, semi-literate thugs have taken it upon themselves to set the world right again. You get the sense that the task is too big for them, but at least Laird offers us some glimmer of hope, however faint it may be.
Laird saw all of this coming back in 1991. Heaven only knows what kind of book he would have written post-9/11. (less)
**spoiler alert** No need to reinvent the wheel. Here's my Amazon.com review:
It doesn't matter whether what you tell people is truth or fiction, becau...more**spoiler alert** No need to reinvent the wheel. Here's my Amazon.com review:
It doesn't matter whether what you tell people is truth or fiction, because there's no such thing as truth, no real difference between fantasy and reality, so you might as well go with the more interesting story. That's "Life of Pi" in a nutshell. Sorry to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read it yet.
Remember that season of the TV series "Dallas" that turned out to be just a dream? That's kind of how you feel after you've invested hours of your time reading page after page of a quite engrossing survival narrative, only to find out that it was all something the survivor made up.
Or was it? Ah, there's the twist that we're supposed to find so clever. But the officials from the ship company who tell Pi they don't believe his story are such hopelessly weak strawmen that the author pretty much forces you to accept the "better story." Pi, and, by extension, Martel, have no patience for the "dry, yeastless factuality" that the ship officials want, you see. Never mind whether it's closer to the truth -- it's just too boring, and we need colorful stories to make our lives richer. Besides, Pi and Martel say, as soon as something leaves your mouth, it's no longer reality -- it's only your interpretation of reality. So why bother grasping for the truth? You prefer the Creation story to the Big Bang? Then go with the Creation story, even if it defies logic and scientific discovery.
That's all well and good. Everyone likes a good story. But there's a time and a place for them, and the ship officials didn't need a story -- they needed to know what happened to their ship. To that end, Pi's entire tale is irrelevant anyway. And that, in turn, makes you wonder what the whole point of the book was. Other than, maybe, to laud the power of storytelling in a really hamfisted manner. Or to advocate for taking refuge in fantastical fiction when reality is too harsh. Or to champion shallow religious beliefs ("Why, Islam is nothing but an easy sort of exercise, I thought. Hot-weather yoga for the Bedouins. Asanas without sweat, heaven without strain."). Or to bash agnostics. Or something.
Be advised that this is not a book for children or the squeamish. Pi's transformation from vegetarian to unflinching killer, and Richard Parker's dietary habits, are rife with gratuituously gory details about the manner in which animals suffer and are killed and eaten.
The story promises to make you believe in God. Yet with Martel's insistence that a well-crafted story is just as good as or even preferable to reality, he leaves us not believing in a god of any kind, but rather suggesting that we embrace the stories that religions have made up about their gods, regardless of those stories' relation to scientific knowledge, since the stories are so darn nice, comfy, warm, and fuzzy in comparison with real life. Whether the God in the stories actually exists, meanwhile, becomes totally irrelevant. So ultimately, Martel makes a case for why he thinks people SHOULD believe in God -- it's a respite from harsh reality, we're told, a way to hide from life rather than meet it head-on with all of its pains and struggles -- and that's quite different from what he ostensibly set out to do. He trivializes God into a "nice story," a trite characterization sure to offend many readers.
Pi sums up this postmodern worldview by telling the ship investigators, "The world isn't just the way it is. It is how we understand it, no?" Well, no, the world IS just the way it is, in all of its highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies, happiness and sadness. But Pi and Martel's solution is to avoid the whole messy thing altogether, pretend that the way things are don't really exist, and pull a security blanket of fiction over your head. Create your own reality as you see fit. That's called escapism. It's fine when you want to curl up with a good book on a rainy day and get lost in the story for a few hours, but it's a lousy way to try to deal with real life.
Pi would tell me that I lack imagination, just as he told the investigators they lacked imagination when Pi claimed he couldn't "imagine" a bonsai tree since he's never seen one, as a way of mocking the investigators' reluctance to believe in Pi's carnivorous island. (Nice cultural stereotyping with the bonsai, by the way -- the investigators are Japanese.) But you see the problem, right? It's not a matter of lacking imagination. It's a matter of conflating things that are obviously imaginary with things that are obviously real. They're not one and the same. It's ludicrous to suggest otherwise. You might as well say that the story of Frodo and the Ring is every bit as real as the American Revolution.
Pi also tells us, quite pointedly, that choosing agnosticism is immobilizing, while atheists and religious folks make a courageous leap of faith. Yet immobility is precisely where Pi places us, so that by the time the book ends, you're stuck not knowing what to think about what you've just read. Do you accept the original shipwreck story just because it's more engrossing, even if it's less believable? Or do you accept the plausible but boring story Pi gives to the officials after he's rescued? Fanciful religious allegories or cold, scientific recitation of facts that might come from the mouth of an atheist -- we're expected to pick one or the other.
But it's a false dichotomy. We needn't make a choice between embracing religious tales merely because they're more interesting or settling for the sobering realities of science and reason. We can go as far as our reason will take us and then leave ourselves open to further possibilities -- just as Pi himself suggests. That's not immobility. That's intellectual honesty -- an admission that I don't know all the answers but am willing to keep an open mind about whatever else is presented to me.
Seems better than saying you might as well just accept the better story since it really makes no difference. That's laziness. And it doesn't make for a very good story. (less)
Part of Gurdjieff's spiritual philosophy was the importance of cultivating a clear, focused mind, staying psychically awake, and giving your undivided...morePart of Gurdjieff's spiritual philosophy was the importance of cultivating a clear, focused mind, staying psychically awake, and giving your undivided attention to whatever activity you happened to be undertaking. That's why Gurdjieff wrote "Beelzebub's Tales" in the manner he did.
This is not light summer reading by any means. If you don't completely and intensely immerse yourself in this book and its utterly bizarre world, you'll get lost somewhere in the first paragraph. And you'll probably give up in frustration after the first few pages.
I'm not kidding. Dense sentences bursting with clauses and asides go on for line after line after line. You'll stumble across invented words that aren't defined until several chapters later. Eventually, just getting through the book becomes a battle of wills against Gurdjieff. Will you prevail, or will the book?
If you make it to the end, he probably would have welcomed you as a student of the Fourth Way. If you don't, well, there are certainly other ways to achieve inner harmony that aren't so mentally draining. I mean, I love a good challenge, and I tip my hat to Gurdjieff for creating such a dense thicket of a book, but this is truly only for a select few, with lots and lots of patience.(less)