Holy the Firm (1977)

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“Write as if you were dying.” This is the admonishment Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard gives readers of her 1989 book The Writing Life. The grim truth behind this charge, she points out, is that we are all dying. What Dillard is getting at is that the writer should jettison anything that does not matter in the face of death. It’s great advice, so long as one doesn’t wish for a lucrative writing career. The advice hints at the debate between genre and literary fiction, traditional versus experimental writing. In Holy the Firm, Dillard directly addresses her audience: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.” Amusingly, the disclaimer comes a quarter of the way into the text, as if she suddenly remembered to point this out, as if she became aware that the reader, by this point, is wondering what exactly the book is. In one way, what this slim little volume is is the embodiment of her own advice.

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The History of Western Philosophy (1945)

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Grad school piqued my interest in philosophy, and once I had free time to read what I wanted (i.e. once I graduated), my first foray into the daunting ocean of philosophy was Will Durant’s admirable book The Story of Philosophy: The Lives and Opinions of the World’s Greatest Philosophers. It was refreshing to gain some context to many hitherto familiar names, to begin going beyond a purely nominal understanding of western philosophy. I thought of working through Copleston’s 11-volume history thereafter but opted for the arguably more ambitious step of absorbing original sources. I read (slowly) through what I considered the major works of Plato (The Republic), Aristotle (Ethics, Politics, Poetics), Spinoza (Ethics, Theologico-Political Treatise), Descartes (Discourse, Method), Bacon (Essays), Hume (An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding), Kant (Critique of Pure Reason, Prolegomena), Hegel (Phenomenology of Spirit), Schopenhauer (The World As Will and Presentation), and Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human). Seven years later, I found myself in need not only of a reinforcement of all that I’d ingested but also some means of putting it all together. As it turns out, Russell’s inimitable book was just what I needed to add some cohesion to the story.

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Consciousness Explained (1991)

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In a way I wish the book had been named Dennett’s Theory of Consciousness, Explained–although, I’m not sure I would have read a book of that title (who wants to read yet another person’s theory?). Indeed the book’s audacious title does its job well in terms of marketing: I purchased and began reading the book with great gusto. But, obviously, since the book was published in 1992 and we here in 2016 still cannot agree that consciousness has been explained, we know that Dennett doesn’t deliver on what we perceive as his initial promise to give us “…an empirical, scientifically respectable theory—of human consciousness” (4). Sure, while there is an abundance of scientific experimentation used in the argument of this book, we ultimately get what Dennett calls “a family of metaphors” (455). So, despite the anticlimactic ending, Dennett does give us an explanation, and I cannot say the journey wasn’t worth it.

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The Art of War (5th century BCE)

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Contrary to western bias, Socrates was not the progenitor of the maxim “know thyself”; in fact, this was a truncation of Sun Tzu’s maxim which boils down to “know thyself and know thy enemy”: “…if you know yourself and know your enemy, you will gain victory a hundred times out of a hundred”; “…if you know the enemy and know yourself, you are sure of victory” (21, 69). This is not to discredit Socrates (or rather Plato’s Socrates), however—to be sure, Sun Tzu’s and Socrates’s audiences and purposes were quite different. What we get with The Art of War is an almost entirely pragmatic manual for generals to successfully conduct war.

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From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds (2016)

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One is tempted to boil down the conclusion of Dennett’s latest book as follows: Consciousness is not magic; it is an illusion. On first glance at the summation, it seems a ridicule—after all, magicians are called masters of illusion—because it seems that Dennett is contradicting himself. If he is a staunch Darwinian materialist, how can he even use such a word-concept as illusion seriously? If one takes a step back, however, and considers all of Dennett’s evidence, one will find that magic (in the sense that Dennett means: supernatural phenomena) and illusion (the phenomena of “mind stuff”) are quite different things.

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974)

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I’ve heard about this book for years, but never found the prospect of reading it appealing. The hardcover from William Morrow and Company sat on my shelves for years, collecting dust and staving off inferiority complexes against its oft-picked neighbors. What do I know or care of motorcycles? Why do I need to read another book about a practice (Zen) that prides itself on being ineffable? A few Zen koans and some of D. T. Suzuki’s treatises and that’s enough for me to get the gist. Anyway, the title, the unremarkable blackboard binding, the lack of public representation (today), and, well, my own circumscribed thinking kept the book from my mind. Until the recent news of Pirsig’s death.

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The Anatomy of Melancholy (1651)

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Despite William Gass’s name being front and center on the cover, it was long into the text before I realized that he happened to have penned the introduction to this, my inaugural book choice of 2017 and last year’s inaugural read, the Dalkey Archive edition of William Gaddis’s The Recognitions, which also happens to have an introduction by none other than Gass. Coincidence or fate? Either way, I’m thankful to have finally meet the acquaintance of Robert Burton. I’m also thankful that New York Review Books has made available a one-volume edition of The Anatomy of Melancholy, however unwieldy it may be.

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