Showing posts with label Philosophy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Philosophy. Show all posts

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder

Here's an interesting book that I just recently finished-and really enjoyed.  Philosophy is something to which I would devote copious amounts of time, if I could.  People endlessly debating?  Yes, please!  Probing theoretical questions that, pragmatically, aren't going to matter, yet give deep insight to what it means to be a human?  Of course!  I picked this book up about two years ago and it, along with so many other books, just never made it onto my current reads pile.  I ignored it and ignored it and let it drop to the very bottom of my list.  Then, in a fit of responsible readership, I decided I was going to pick something that had been on the bottom of my list for ages.  I book I felt sorry for, if you will.  And Sophie's World, it was.

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder is an interesting book.  It's very much a work of nonfiction, yet it also is a novel.  I think that it's technically a YA book, but it doesn't read that way at all.  Sophie's World is really an introduction to philosophy.  A Philosophy 101 course of sorts.  However, it's also an engrossing, well written novel.

Sophie is a fourteen year old girl who starts getting regular letters from a mysterious pen-pal, a philosopher.  The first letter asks, "Who are you?" and from there, the questions in the letters grow more and more complex, introducing all the great philosophers in Western culture along the way.  Sophie is instantly captivated.  But there is more mystery.  Sophie keeps getting mail written to a girl named Hilde-somebody that she's never heard of before.

I think that "charming" is really the best adjective for this book.  It is fresh and interesting and like no other book I have ever read.  Unlike so much young adult fiction, there weren't these dark, complicated layers.  No dramatic family situations.  No near-death incidents.  In so many ways, it read like a 50s novel, except that there was something more to it, a wiser sense that isn't present in so much of fiction from the 50s and earlier, a lack of naiveté.  Hard to explain, but enjoyable to read.

After musing on this for awhile, I think that this may be a perfect example of post-postmodernism, sometimes referred to as the New Sincerity movement.  Here's a very interesting article about it from The Atlantic.  And a useful Wikipedia article.  In summary, it is a rejection of cynicism and irony delivered in large amounts and a return to sincerity.  However, it differs from the modernism of the 50s and earlier in that it acknowledges the progress that we made in boycotting a lot of the problems of modernity-the patriarchy, the racism, the inability to question some things (I'm not saying that these things aren't a problem any more, but we at least have started to acknowledge them).  Post-post modernism takes the best of both modernity and post modernity.  In the Atlantic article I linked above, the author writes, "Across pop culture, it's become un-ironically cool to care about spirituality, family, neighbors, the environment, and the country."

And I think that, in some small way, that was what I saw in Sophie's World.  A new kind of sincerity, with nods to post-modernity and what it gave us, particularly in regards to the philosophical world.  Maybe I was completely reading into it because I happen to be interested in the idea of this new movement (although it really isn't that new).  At any rate, I have been bitten by the philosophy bug.

Jostein Gaarder is a good writer, too, which made this book even more enjoyable to read.  Writing the voice of a 14 year old girl must not be an easy feat and he very successfully writes in Sophie's voice.  I admit to devouring the book easily within 2 days.  In addition to this, this book definitely made me want to read Sartre and Aristotle and everything in between.  I do think that I am going to add some philosophy classics to my Classics Club list, though.

This is one of those truly good books.  A nourishing book.  I spent a good portion of the book taking plenty of notes and underlining because there were so many things to remember, but then I became so engrossed that I forgot to take notes.  All this to say, this is a book that is definitely worth your time.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Thoughts on Narnia

(Girl With Her Head in a Book did a lovely post on Top Ten Irritating Book Characters.  One of the characters she listed was Susan, the responsible big sister in Chronicles of Narnia.  And that is how this train of thought started.)

Narnia is a series that I remember so fondly.  Throughout my elementary school years, my dad was primarily the evening read-aloud parent and we plowed through so many classic children's books together-Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, A Wrinkle in Time and Meet the Austins, Matilda, and so many more.  And, of course, The Chronicles of Narnia made it onto the list.  I remember loving them.  I wept bitterly through Aslan's death and resurrection and laughed at dear Mr. Tumnus and all of the other wonderful characters.  Narnia is one of those books that will live on in my memory probably forever.  Then I picked up the books again at some point recently (maybe 2 years ago?) and I began to notice new elements.

Of course, by the time I read the books again recently,  I was well acquainted with C.S. Lewis and had enjoyed The Great Divorce and the Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity and all of those books.  And I really do admire Lewis as a thinker and a Christian.  However, I also came to realize that he was very much a man of his time and his opinions come through loud and clear.

Of course, it's a pretty much universally known piece of information that Narnia is one great biblical analogy.  The books are about the Christian story, starting with the new worlds created when Edmund and Lucy jump into the pools in The Magician's Nephew and ending with the Book of Revelation-filled The Last Battle.  Aslan is, of course, Jesus and the four children are everyman/everywoman/other biblical characters as needed.  The evil white witch is, I suppose, Satan.  You could go into a whole analysis of why the representation of evil is a human female and I know that many people have.  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The thing that drove me wild while reading these books recently was that C.S. Lewis was sexist as all get out.  I think it's interesting that this came out most in a children's book.  It didn't cross my mind when I was reading, say Mere Christianity, but the message is loud and clear throughout most of the book.  I think that we can say very mildly that Lewis did not, ahem, have a very contemporary view of gender and race.

Susan, in particular, bothered me.  She goes from being the personality-less big sister whose sole purpose in life is being the stable Martha-like (as in the Mary and Martha story) character to being cast out of Narnia because she has become interested in makeup and parties.  This struck me as so strange and I will confess to be annoyed to no end on behalf of all big sisters everywhere. And then there's the white witch and her other evil counterpart who appears in The Silver Chair, The Lady of the Green Kirtle, or the Emerald Witch.  There were some weird comparisons to Eve in the Garden of Eden at the beginning of The Magician's Nephew.  Those are just a few off the top of my head.

The other thing I cringed over was the racism in the Horse and His Boy.  I mean, it was bad enough that I was cringing while reading.  Sheesh, did he really just say that?  And that does make a book uncomfortable to read.  The portrayal of the Calormens is hard to take at best; they are every Middle Eastern stereotype you've ever heard.  And the way that they are constantly contrasted with the fair people of Narnia made me gag.

It gives me a bit of a pang to admit all of this.  See, I still absolutely adore Narnia.  The imagery is some of the best out there, the characters are all lovable and the plot is perfectly crafted.  I would be loath to tell any parent not to read these books to their children.  On the contrary, if I were running the world, I would insist on every parent reading these books to all of their children, simply for the beautiful storytelling.  There are some pretty wonderful truths throughout the books that I think everybody should hear, like sibling loyalty and the importance of a culture and, oh, a thousand things.  I could write a whole series of posts on things that Narnia taught me.

So I wonder, am I overreacting?  Should I treat Narnia like I would any old book-appreciating the good stories and the wonderful things they have to offer, while also acknowledging that we have moved on in some ways in our modern world?  And the thing is, all authors are human and, therefore, all authors are flawed and products of their times and places.  Can any book ever be perfect?

I'm not sure why this book struck me particularly.  Perhaps because it was such a crucial book in my childhood, or maybe just because it's such good writing.  Maybe if the writing were less that perfect, I would be willing to write off the author's flaws more easily.  Is it because C. S. Lewis is such a good, good writer that it is harder to acknowledge his personal flaws?

So those are my Narnia musings, all set off by a simple comment and having read the books recently.  Now, tell me, what are your thoughts on Narnia?  Should it get a free pass on any kind of scrutiny because it is such beloved and wonderful writing?  Should we just throw it out and stop romanticizing over the writing?  Or should we strike some kind of happy medium of acknowledging it's problems while also accepting that this is some of the loveliest children's fiction out there?

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I Read in 2014

I read a lot this year.  I think I read so much because I had this blog that was quietly tapping me on the shoulder, reminding me to take the time to read and write on my blog.  Yes, there was my (brief) hiatus from blogging, back in the fall, but I could never completely leave this blog and, so, I'm committing to a brisker blog schedule and even more reading this year!  I thought I would compile a list of what I read this year.  I was so pleased, readers!  The list starts in March because that was when I started blogging and, honestly, I have absolutely no memory of what I read before that.

March

The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery (And my first blog post!)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (Still one of my favorite works of fiction)
The Penderwicks Books by Jeanne Birdsall
Two Sherlock Holmes Books
Canterbury Tales
Kilmeny of the Orchard by L.M. Montgomery
Hotel Paradise by Martha Grimes
Don't Look Now by Daphne DuMaurier (NOT a hit!)
The Beginning of Flavia de Luce
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Everyman and Medieval Miracle Plays
The Life of Pi

Sunday, September 7, 2014

The Great Divorce

My latest read has been The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis.  I grew up with C.S. Lewis (particularly the Chronicles of Narnia, but other things as well, such as Screwtape Letters), so his writing is not new to me, but for some reason I had skipped this book.

The Great Divorce refers to a book called The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  C.S. Lewis is replying to the assertion that parts of Heaven and Hell should be combined to make earth and instead calls for "a great divorce between heaven and hell," a return to an either/or stance rather than a both/and stance.  The story is an allegory, a sort of reflection on the nature of heaven and hell and how people participate in both realms on earth.  The story starts when the narrator boards a bus in a strange land where it is always grey and drizzly.  He goes on an incredible journey through heaven and hell with his complaining, griping, unsatisfied fellow travelers.  Lewis sums up the moral of the story in the introduction, "If we insist on keeping Hell (or even earth) we shall not see Heaven; if we accept Heaven we shall not be able to retain even the smallest and most intimate souvenirs of Hell."

It is no secret that Lewis is a highly revered writer and thinker, but this was especially impressed upon me in this book.  The way that important truths are presented in an unassuming, yet poignant way is impressive.  And it isn't every writer that can write a pressing allegory without it become a diatribe or a long-winded sermon.  I was encourage in my own faith by this book, but I was also challenged and convicted by it.  I think it's a good idea to read a book that makes one ever so slightly uncomfortable (in a good, spurring-on kind of way, of course) every once in a while.

I'm going to include a quote from the introduction of the book (which really was a sort of interpretation for the whole allegory).

"You cannot take all luggage with you on all journeys; on one journey even your right hand and your right eye may be among the things you have to leave behind."

I really enjoyed this book.  As you long-time readers know, I read a lot of lighter-end fiction and so it was quite refreshing to get out of a bit of a reading grove.  This book also has the advantage of not being a tome-like book.  It's something that can be read over a quiet weekend and the reader will be left with a refreshed, thoughtful feeling.  Of course, this is a Christianity-geared book, however, if you are a thinker and enjoy contemplating, I would highly recommend this book.  I really liked it.