Wednesday, July 8, 2009

This Week at the Library (8/7)

Books this Update:
  • The Gospel According to the Son, Norman Mailer
  • The Prince and the Pauper, Mark Twain
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig
  • You Don't Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right, Brad Hirschfield
  • The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton

I began the week with a novelized version of the Christian gospels. Jesus' story is told through the first person point of view. His take on the traditional gospels is right in line with Orthodoxy, although he does mention that the Gospel writers tended to add things here and there. The book adds a little to the authoritative texts, although for me the story never really came into its own with a few exceptions. Judas and Satan are two of the better developed characters, which makes sense given that the rest of the disciples (save Peter) just hang around. If you like the canon Gospels, you'll probably enjoy this -- but if not, give it a pass.

During my childhood I read a lot of 'classic' works through the Great Illustrated Classics series for children. I think a given author's style of writing is important by itself, and so I've decided to re-read some of the classics in the author's own words. I decided to start with something by Twain, and so I checked out The Prince and the Pauper -- the story of two young boys in the time of Henry VIII, one a prince born in a palace and the other a pauper who lives in the streets. Poor Tom Canty dreams of royalty and makes his way to the palace to ogle it, where he is noticed by the prince and invited it. The two are dead ringers for one another and decide to change clothes on a lark -- inviting the plot, in which Prince Edward is thrown onto the streets and Canty is trapped in the palace. Twain uses the "fish out of water" plot device to make royalty see what life is like outside of the palace gates and criticize social woes and royal indifference.

Next I read the highly-acclaimed Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I approached with anticipation. I thought it would be about the intersection of philosophy and everyday life, and had heard it accomplished this in the form of a traveling journal -- which interests me. The book is indeed a bit of both: the author and his son join friends of the author as they go on a motorcycle trip across the northern Midwestern and western states of the US. Pirsig blends accounts of his with lectures on philosophy. Sometimes the two threads are joined, as they are when he uses a story of his troubleshooting motorcycle problems and an explanation of the scientific method and intellectual organization. For me the book was very much a mixed bag: I found it interesting at times and very dull at times: it's not that I found the lectures exciting and the memoir dull or the reverse, but that some parts of both were interesting or dull.

Brad Hirschfield's You Don't Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right was a welcome relief from the heavy reading that preceded it. Hirschfield is a Jewish rabbi who offers advice on interpersonal conflict that arises from opposing views on personal issues. Although this advice is rendered at first about religious things and maintains a religious flavor throughout, the advice throughout most of the book can be applied to nonreligious conflicts. I think more secular readers like myself can enjoy this, but would probably prefer this kind of advice in a book that is -- from my perspective -- limited by tradition.

Lastly I read Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel, a collection of nine essays dealing with various aspects of travel. de Botton examines travel -- why we do it, where it takes us, what it can do for us -- while relying on various historical personalities to guide both he and the reader in certain subjects. The essays often rely on pictures -- art prints and photographs -- within the text. The book hits its high point late, with de Botton's essays on art and travel. In one particular paragraph, he writes on how drawing and writing "word pictures" can force us to become more aware of what we see and make the experience more lasting. I thought the book a treat.

Pick of the Week: Alain de Botton's The Art of Travel.

Next Week:
  • The Time Machine, H.G. Wells. I'm continuing a project I began with The Prince and the Pauper in reading classics I haven't read since childhood.
  • Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar, Thomas Cathcart
  • Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary; Marcus Borg. Borg and Bishop Shelby Spong are two of the men who interested me in comparative religion and humanistic Christianity.
  • Jennifer Government, Max Barry. I started to read this back in the early "Aughts", but I don't think I ever finished.
  • Lemony Snicket's The Bad Beginning, The Reptile Room, and The Wide Window. Books 1-3 of the Series of Unfortunate Events. I'm finally going to read the book series that inspired one of my favorite movies.
  • And Zen Buddhism for Beginners by Jean Smith, as I don't know what separates Zen from regular ol' Buddhism.
If that list looks daunting, it really isn't. All of these books are shortish, especially the Snicket ones.


  1. I like your reading list for next week, Coffee. I liked the movie but haven't read the books either (Lemony Snicket) so I look forward to your posts.

  2. I deliberately picked the first three books because they constitute the movie: the other ten are separate adventures, but I think -- barring interference from children who are competing with me -- I shall read the rest this month.


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