The Story of Philosophy by James Garvey, Jeremy Stangroom

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Using simple language and a dash of contextual wit, James Garvey and Jeremy Stangroom take the reader on a whirlwind tour of the evolution, development and future of Western philosophy. It sure is an arduous endeavour to traverse back 2000 years in time to flesh out the origins, premise and causes that triggered the thinking membranes of and induced the trait of curiosity in a few extremely enthusiastic and optimistic individuals. That beacon of curiosity has been passed down in a remarkably unbroken chain where on the way it has been refined, altered, remodeled and resurrected in a myriad number of ways. The book is neatly divided into chronological sections with each section highlighting a phase of thought in sequential fashion. However the reader is not constrained or compelled to read the book in the order of its contents. Any Chapter can be read in preference to any other.

While the philosophical musings of the quintessential Socrates, the ubiquitous Plato and the inevitable Aristotle are the usual and invariable suspects, we are also treated to a philosophical diet of more abstruse and obscure concepts and conundrums pioneered by Hegel, Derrida, Kant, Russell and the like. While some of the messages are easily to comprehend, there are a few notions which are so esoteric that they represent a test of both patience and sanity. For example the ontological arguments of Anselm of Canterbury defending the existence of God are so convoluted that one comes perilously close to tearing one’s hair out in sheer frustration and exasperation. Consider the following astounding sentence:

“[Even a] fool, when he hears of … a being than which nothing greater can be conceived … understands what he hears, and what he understands is in his understanding.… And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.… Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.”

If you feel that the aforementioned passage is a mistaken or a sadistic agglomeration of balderdash and malarkey, you will be surprised to note that there are equally esoteric criticisms also against its logic! However Garvey and Stangroom, (thankfully for a reader who is not either an intentional or accidental initiate into philosophy) handhold the perplexed soul through some stormy waters onto the safer confines of dry land.

While the innumerable theories, arguments and counter arguments might seem a real handful and pose a veritable challenge in so far as assimilation and absorption is concerned, on the whole for a person who is very keen to get a whiff of what philosophy is all about, “The Story of Philosophy” provides a refreshing and riveting flavour.

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

StatusIn a world obsessed with hoarding material wealth and acquiring symbolic societal status, how we judge the value of our existence is to a great extent dependent upon how worthy or unworthy others perceive us to be – whether fairly or unfairly. While a favourable verdict imbues us with a vainglorious vanity, an adverse judgment plunges us into a morass of depression and despondency. A paranoid anxiety concerning our status (or the lack of it) in society is the theme of Alain De Botton’s “Status Anxiety”. This is a very relevant and essential work, especially considering the pressure we put on ourselves to better our prospects relevant to that which is the preserve of our neighbour.

Alain De Botton exhorts us to sever ourselves from the unending loop of the rat race and to develop an attitude of temperance and contentment. Arguing that this manic craving for status was not always a concomitant of the Homo sapiens thinking, De Botton provides various spiritual as well as practical examples to illustrate the fact that frugality can be the handmaiden of happiness and a fulfilling life. Whether it be Henry David Thoreau’s ingenious act of living in a self-constructed house in the serene calm of wooded surroundings, or St Thomas Aquinas’ austere self-imposed poverty, De Botton impresses upon the curious the fact that monetary excesses to not equate to either spiritual progression or peaceful living. As De Botton also takes pains to illustrate, there have been movements and attempts by a collection of determined souls – spanning a number of years – to liberate mankind from the relentless pursuit of Mammon worship and the sacrifice of happiness and judiciousness at the altar of greed and prejudice. These individuals encompass a wide range of art enthusiasts such as poets, painters, authors and Christian moralists. While it is beyond the scope of this review to recount the exploits of such luminaries, suffice it to say that all their exhortations finds a strong voice in De Botton’s writing.

De Botton writes with a passion that is genuine and a concern that is not unfounded. His impassioned pleas to not get bogged down in the abyss of extraneous opinions and to be not taken in by outlandish displays of ostentatious behavior strikes a powerful chord and remains long after the actual book has been completed. It needs to be clarified that De Botton does not advocate a complete abhorrence of material pleasures and a return to the mendicant style of living that was practiced by the hunter gatherer. On the contrary he urges us to practice self-restraint and to seek contentment in valuable and worthy intangibles such as love towards one’s family, cultivation of long lasting friendships and the inclination to lend a helping hand or an able shoulder whenever the need arises. As is the case with De Botton, there is no verbiage or flamboyance in the writing. The narration is pleasing on the eye and the important facets that are emphasized are supplemented by alluring illustrations.

“Status Anxiety” is a welcome and relieving remedy to the universal ailment of greed, rapaciousness, vanity and jealousy. If one is feeling weighed down by the pressures and predicaments of societal comparisons, then this is the very book one has to reach out to, to get rid of such burdensome anxiety. 

A General Theory of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa, Daniel Hahn (Translator)

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Angola is facing testing times just on the brink of its much awaited Independence. The streets are rife with warm blooded rioting youth and factional violence becomes a common place occurrence. Ludovica Fernandes Mano (‘Ludo’) lives in an elite housing complex with her sister Odete and brother in law. An unfortunate incident uproots her existence as both Odete and her husband go missing leaving Ludo alone in the company of a German Shepherd named Phantom. Ludo has a peculiar phobia of open spaces which means that she cannot step out of her house. When militant elements try breaking in into the apartment complex, Ludo literally walls her apartment and consequently herself out of the world’s eye. She spends thirty years in her self-imposed prison before a chance encounter with a see year old boy reacquaints her with humanity.

Ludo’s predicament is an obvious testimony to Jose Eduardo Agualusa’s genuine prowess as an accomplished story teller. There is a languid feel to the book as the story flows unimpeded collecting mysterious characters, connecting myriad places and creating kaleidoscopic images. Ludo is at once impractical, incorrigible and yet innocent. The helplessness of a woman who has an almost inveterate obstinacy in not improving her prospects – an improvement which requires the incredibly simple act of stepping over the threshold of a house – invites a mixed reaction of both empathy and exasperation. The reader is tempted to wring her hands, clench her fists and cry out to Ludo in sheer frustration, imploring her to break down the walls of both concrete and stupidity within which she has chosen to torment not only herself, but also a faithful and unwitting canine. Ludo’s stubborn nature however is her sin as well as her very own atonement. Her confinement is the collective shame and hubris of a wretched society that wallows in its own pretentiousness, prejudice and pity.

The curious case of Karmic justice makes frequent appearances in “The General Theory of Oblivion”. Most of the ‘Karma’ backlashes are in tragicomic sequences that elicit both a sense of amusement and astonishment. Agualusa does a wonderful task of first keeping the characters as distant from each other as possible before making them collide and collude abruptly in circumstances that are so sudden, severe and drastic, that one is forced to pause, compose one’s excitement, take a deep breath and continue with undisguised wonderment and trepidation. People fade away like a calm and passing mist only to reappear with the intensity of a violent thunderstorm, that too when such a manifestation is least expected. There is an unmistakable influence of Gabriel Garcia Marquez in the writing of Agualusa. This characteristic is especially prominent in the imaginative weft and weave of the plots and sub-plots forming the cornerstone of Ludo’s travails and triumphs.

“The General Theory of Oblivion” is a celebration of the act of storytelling. It is also a magnificent product of a man at the pinnacle of his form as an author. A man, who by the time he is done as a writer (which would be a long long time from now) would have accumulated much deserved renown, respect and not surprisingly multiple rewards!

How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen

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First things first. The title of this work is an absolute misnomer. This is not a practice manual for an aspiring ascetic or a to-be-mendicant. In fact going through the collection of Jonathan Franzen’s bold and extremely personal essays, loneliness is replaced by a sense of camaraderie and a need for engaging in collective musings. The inimitable Jonathan Franzen imprimatur can be found splattered across the book. Complex, and at times even convoluted vocabulary, a pursuit towards solipsism albeit involuntary and a candidness that is frighteningly transparent are the main highlights of “How To Be Alone”.

The essays contained within the confines of this book span variegated themes. Franzen sets the scene for this interesting assemblage with an extremely evocative and moving piece on his late father who was assailed by degenerating Alzheimer’s disease. Both the helplessness and the resilience displayed by a human being who is aware of his fading future demonstrates both the exasperation afflicting the family of the patient as well as the trauma affecting the sufferer himself. Other essays include one on the workings of a super-max prison in America. Although not exactly a polemic on the way incarcerated individuals are treated in a prison, it is a searing indictment of law enforcement policies and practices. The most interesting or rather controversial essay in the book is the one titled “Why Bother?”. Popularly known as “The Harper’s Essay”, this was a piece penned by Franzen in 1996. This represented an investigation by Franzen of the fate of the American novel. Accumulating praise and tirades alike, this essay shapes the sharp personality of Franzen as an astute author nurturing some vitriolic views.

The versatility of Franzen’s work is encapsulated in the myriad topics dealt with by his essays. A provocative essay on the blatantly brazen inefficiency and callous arrogance of the Chicago Post Office, which consequently led to its downfall is succeeded by a hugely titillating and arousing piece on the ‘sex-advise’ industry. An essay titled “Mr. Difficult” represents Franzen’s retort, response and rebuttal to criticisms of his writing style. Franzen’s third novel titled “Corrections” led to the author receiving some incendiary mails concerning the style of writing. Some of the readers severely criticized Franzen’s ‘complicated’ and ‘elitist’ style alleging that his work was aimed at satisfying the cravings of high society snobs. Franzen defends himself and refutes such criticism by setting out various distinctive styles of writing and the purpose underlying each style. This essay however meanders through some difficult literary terrain and has the tendency to lose the attention span of the reader at frequent intervals.

Every essay included in this book provides an insight into the perspective which Jonathan Franzen brings to the fore as a passionate author, keen thinker and a formidable essayist. Reviewing this book, The New York Times stated, “The welcome paradox in ‘How to Be Alone’, is that the reader need not feel isolated at all….This collection emphasizes [Franzen’s] elegance, acumen and daring as an essayist, with an intellectually engaging self-awareness as formidable as Joan Didion’s”.

Agreed!

Micro by Michael Crichton, Richard Preston

MicroCommenced by the brilliant late Michael Crichton and completed by the visionary Science Writer Richard Preston, “Micro” is a high strung concept science thriller involving an explosive intersection between nano technology and microbiology. Nanigen, a company housed in an unobtrusive expanse of acreage in quiet Honolulu is on the cusp of making path breaking discoveries in pharmacy and healthcare by harnessing the untapped potential of various minute and minuscule species of fungi, insects and other micro organisms. For aiding and abetting Nanigen in its endeavours, its team of brilliant scientists invent an incredibly tiny prototype of robots known as micobots. A micro bot standing a mere half a millimeter tall is equipped with sophisticated technology enabling it to mine the earth for collecting hitherto unseen species. The creation of the micro bots is carried out at the incredibly complex tensor generator. The tensor generator powered by an immense magnetic force is used to shrink elements and substances to ultimately form the microbots.

However when 3 people who are closely associated with Nanigen are found dead, with inumerable razor sharp, fine and almost invisible cuts all over their bodies, and when 7 brilliant graduate students (ethnobotanists, arachnologists, herpetologists etc) arrive at Nanigen for a prospective recruitment, only to promptly go missing, alarms are raised about both the nature and purpose of Nanigen’s existence. Meanwhile the high flying venture capitalist and CEO of Nanigen Vin Drake seems to be unruffled by the unfortunate turn of events. Does Vin Drake hold within the entomed vaults of Nanigen secrets too very dangerous to be let out? What has befallen the fates of the 7 innocuous graduates whose only aspiration was to further their research prospects at Nanigen?

“Micro” is a racy, frenzied one sitting read which at its end will have the reader wondering about the ethical dilemmas plaguing the field of Science during a time where technological developments sky rocket at a blinding speed – often at the cost of moral values and principles.

The Infinite Tortoise: The Curious Thought Experiments of History’s Great Thinkers by Joel Levy

LevyFrom time immemorial, thought experiments have been employed as a platform from which to springboard towards seminal discoveries and thought provoking concepts. Thought experiments have distinguished themselves in a multitude of disciplines ranging from Physics, to Humanities and from Law to Mathematics. Prima facie appearing to be either extremely trivial or incredibly complex, these thought experiments are a monumental tribute to the spontaneous epiphanies of great philosophers, capable scientists and genius Mathematicians, amongst others.

In “The Infinite Tortoise” (the title in itself being a thought experiment formulated by the pre-Socratic Greek Philosopher, Xeno to signify a race between a tortoise and the fabled hero Achilles), Joel Levy sets out a collection of thought experiments shaping the collective thinking of mankind. These famous experiments are described in a simple, easy and understandable fashion although some of the more obstinate ones such as Schroedinger’s Cat and Descartes’s demon tax the intellect a bit more than what would be desirable!

On the whole the Infinite Tortoise makes for an engrossing read and piques a great deal of curiosity

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

SeethalerThe story of Andreas Egger is of a life distinguished by simplicity. It is also the story of a relationship between a solitary man and a stunning landscape. But more pertinently it is a story with which you, me and every other person can relate to, in howsoever a trivial or material way. Robert Seethaler has come up with a book that speaks for itself. A speech that is neither couched in jargon nor blanketed by euphemisms. Seethaler’s “A Whole Life” sizzles with simplicity and sears in its clarity. Suffused with warmth yet soaked in tragedy, this paradoxical masterpiece could well be on its way to carving out a niche as a modern classic.

Andreas Egger is transported under unfortunate circumstances, to a breathtaking mountain valley as a four year old child. Nurtured by both an adopted farmer father and Mother Nature, Egger leads a symbiotic relationship with the magnificent but dangerous terrain surrounding him. A singularly peculiar encounter with a dying goatherd popularly known as Horned Hannes influences both the destiny and future of Egger. A hitherto uneventful existence takes on eventful hues and colour as Andreas discovers love, only to lose it in dire circumstance, war, camaraderie and significantly – solitude. Never losing either equanimity or equilibrium, Andreas Egger faces every obstacle hurled at him by both man and fate with a remarkable sense of acceptance and stoicism. Each tryst of Andreas in turn leaves a lasting impact on the heart, mind and soul of the reader. In fact it is the reader who is left marveling at the almost incomprehensible neutrality of Andreas’ emotions and who is almost forced to scream out at his protagonist, exhorting him to give vent to his trials, triumphs and tribulations.

The most alluring and masterly aspect of the book is its concurrent treatment of and reference to the past, present and future. The weft and warp of differing timelines are weaved together in an extraordinary fashion by Robert Seethaler. Andrea’s existence thus seems to constitute not only a whole, but an eternal life! The frightening ease with which Seethaler accomplishes this feat is to putting it mildly – disturbingly mesmeric! In an era where books are deliberately kept convoluted and garish with a view to accumulating both bourgeoisie readership and elitist acclaim, ‘A Whole Life’ is a stand out. It represents a work of virtuosity embellished by the frugality of language and the fortitude of narration. The latter part owes a great debt to the translation skills of Charlotte Collins.

If there is one book with which you plan to begin your reading chore in the year 2017, I would sincerely or even forcefully recommend that you pick up a copy of “A Whole Life”.