BOOK REVIEW: A Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans

A Transcendental JourneyA Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date [for 25th Anniversary ed.]: September 10, 2022

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A Transcendental Journey intersperses a quirky travelogue of a rambling road-trip through America with a book report on selected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. On a positive note, the book offers genuinely funny lines within a generally amusing wandering discussion of events, and there’s something authentic about the voice – you may find yourself hearing the words in the voice of someone you know (or a character) who is idiosyncratic and nerdy in a way that is not uncommon in America. I did. In addition to the funny lines, there are statements that feel profound and are definitely thought-provoking.

Some of the offbeat elements go a bit too far, reaching the point of distraction. For some reason, the author decided to note not only each time he drank a Coca-Cola, but the size of the beverage. At first, it’s just a bit of weirdness that seems to contribute to the aforementioned authentic voice, but eventually one is made sad by the idea that this guy is giving himself diabetes and involving you, as reader, in the process. I can’t say that the philosophy bit is particularly well integrated into the travelogue, and the author often seems like an Enlightenment guy more than a Transcendentalist. (Transcendentalism being an offshoot of Romanticism, a philosophy meant to counteract the perceived cold, hard rationality of Enlightenment thinking and take a more mystical / spiritual [though not necessarily religious] view of the world.) That said, I can’t fault an inability to keep these schools of thought in boxes, as my own philosophy and worldview are fairly ala carte. My point is just that someone who picked up the book expecting to have a clearer view of what distinguishes Transcendentalism from other philosophies might come away confused.

If you enjoy travelogues, particularly of the United States, you’ll find this book a fun read. If you’re familiar with the works of Emerson, I wouldn’t expect any deep philosophical insight, but there are some fine quotes and discussions to remind you of Emerson’s great ideas and beautiful language. (And there are certainly many varied insights to ponder.)

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ESSAY REVIEW: The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved by Hunter S. Thompson

The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and DepravedThe Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Online Available Free: Grantland

Available within the collection: The Great Shark Hunt

This story is cited as the first work of gonzo journalism, a highly entertaining style of immersion journalism which takes liberties with objectivity and factual detail for comedic effect or heightened narrative impact. The Kentucky Derby is more setting than subject of the story. It’s Thompson attempting to throw together coverage of the horse race at the last minute for Scanlan’s Monthly, a magazine that existed less than a year. So, the story is as much Thompson racing around trying to con his way into some press passes as he and the graphic artist sent by the magazine go on a booze-fueled junket on and around the race track grounds.

The story is laugh-out-loud funny in places, and features Thompson’s irreverent and fast-paced style throughout. It really was something new. Thompson, apparently, thought he’d failed completely when he sent in the story, but the response indicated that – rather – he’d invented something new, something for which there would be a huge market.

It’s definitely worth reading this story, just don’t expect deep insight into the horse racing tradition of Kentucky.

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ESSAY REVIEW: Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell

Confessions of a Book ReviewerConfessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Available free through the Orwell Foundation

An amusing essay that reveals the dirty secrets of book criticism, while proposing that the vast majority of books don’t merit a review. Just a few pages long.

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BOOK REVIEW: An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

An Essay On CriticismAn Essay On Criticism by Alexander Pope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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View free at The Poetry Foundation

This essay is a poem, i.e. heroic couplets in iambic pentameter, to be precise. It advises both poets and critics of some of the mistakes made in their respective pursuits (though at the outset he warns that bad criticism is a bigger sin than bad poetry.) To critics, Pope advises against nit-picking, as well as failure to recognize the tradeoffs inherent in poetry – i.e. sometimes the better sounding line is grammatically strained, or the wittier line may be less musical. To poets, he lays out a range of insights from stylistic to psychological, and it is an essay both about improving the product of writing as well as improving the relations between writers and critics.

Those unfamiliar with the essay will still be aware of a few of its lines, these include: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;” “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and anyone who’s learned to write iambic pentameter (and the sins, thereof) will remember: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

But those everyday aphorisms are by no means the full extent of this essay’s wise words and its clever phrasing. My favorite couplets of the poem include:

“Some neither can for wits nor critics pass, // As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.”

“Trust not yourself, but your defects to know, // Make use of ev’ry friend – and ev’ry foe.”

“For works may have more wit than does ‘em good, // As bodies perish through excess of blood.”

“Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, // Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, // As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

“Some praise at morning what they blame at night; // But always think the last opinion right.”

“Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things, // Atones not for that envy which it brings.”

“All seems infected that th’ infected spy, // As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.”

“’Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain; // And charitably let the dull be vain:”

I delighted in this poem. It’s full of food-for-thought, and reads remarkably well for a piece from the year 1711.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde

The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing NothingThe Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free to Read Online

In this dialogue, the characters of Ernest and Gilbert reflect upon the value, nature, and limits of artistic criticism. Ernest serves largely as foil and questioner, taking the everyman view that critics are failed artists and that criticism is a puny endeavor that isn’t good for much. Gilbert, on the other hand, defends criticism of art as an art unto itself, and a difficult one at that, one that requires revealing elements and ideas of the artistic piece that the artist didn’t put in the piece in the first place. Throughout, Gilbert lays down his counterintuitive bits of wisdom about the job of the critic, the characteristics of good critics, and – also – about artists and art, itself. [Ideas such as that all art is immoral.]

Oscar Wilde was famed for his wit, quips, and clever – if controversial – turns of phrase, and this dialogic essay is packed with them. A few of my favorites include:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.”

“Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing.”

“If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.”

“Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.”

“Ah! don’t say that you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

“…nothing worth knowing can be taught.”

This is an excellent essay, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in art, criticism, or who just likes to noodle through ideas. You’re unlikely to complete the essay as a convert to all of Gilbert’s tenets, but you’ll have plenty to chew on, mentally speaking.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural SciencesThe Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Paul Wigner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available online here

This brief essay asks why math proves so effective for describing / codifying physical laws, and whether our physical theories — built on (phenomenally successful) mathematics — offer the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

There’s a popular story in which a drunk man is found on his hands and knees under a lamppost at night when a police officer comes along. The cops says, “What-cha doin’?” To which the drunk replies, “I dropped my keys, and I’m looking for them?” So, the cop says, “Well, they’re clearly not where you’re looking, why not look elsewhere?” And the drunk says, “Cuz this is where the light is.” I think this story can help us understand what Wigner is getting on about, if only we replace the drunk’s “light” with the scientist’s “elegant mathematics.” Wigner reflects upon why it should be that so many laws of nature seem to be independent from all but a few variables (which is the only way scientists could have discovered them –historically, mathematically, and realistically speaking.) On the other hand, could it be that Physics has led itself into epistemological cul-de-sacs by chasing elegant mathematics?

There’s no doubt that (for whatever the reason turns out to be) mathematics has been tremendously successful in facilitating the construction of theories that make predictions that can be tested with high levels of accuracy. However, that doesn’t mean that some of those theories won’t prove to be mirages.

A few of the examples used in this paper are somewhat esoteric and won’t be readily understood by the average (non-expert) reader. That said, Wigner puts his basic arguments and questions in reasonably clear (if academic) language. The essay is definitely worth reading for its thought-provoking insights.


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BOOK REVIEW: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

The One-Straw RevolutionThe One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I kept running into references to this book in my readings about food and farming, and, eventually, I figured it must be a must-read. One topic that’s of interest to me (and should be of interest to everyone) is how [or, perhaps, whether] humanity can be sustainably fed, given the realities of human nature. Fukuoka (d. 2008) was at the vanguard of what’s been called the “natural farming” movement (a term he admitted he didn’t love.) He spent decades growing rice, other grains, and fruits in rural Shikoku, Japan, using a minimalist approach.

The book mixes philosophy, biography, commentary on food / nutrition, and instruction in Fukuoka’s approach to agriculture. Guided by a philosophy of “wu wei” (i.e. “effortless action,”) Fukuoka figured out how to reduce the amount of effort and resources put into farming, while maintaining crop yields that were competitive with the standard farming model. His approach appears backwards, lazy, and unlikely to succeed. He didn’t plow his fields. He planted by casting seed into the previous crop before harvesting it (note: he alternated rice with winter grains.) He didn’t weed, but rather let white clover grow freely and used the stalks and chaff from one harvest as cover for the next (again, rotating crops,) a cover that biodegraded into nutrients. He used no chemicals, neither fertilizer nor insecticide. And yet, important details of his approach kept his yields up while using minimal resources to maximum effect by operating in accord with nature (e.g. no insecticides seems to risk infestation, but it also means that you haven’t killed the creatures that eat pests.)

Fukuoka’s philosophy combines the principles of nature, Buddhist & Taoist concepts, and – believe it or not — something reminiscent of Nihilism (without calling it such.) There are parts of the book that some might find disagreeable. For example, Fukuoka uses an analogy that draws on the Mahayanist view of the distinction between Mahayana and “Hinayana” that Theravadins may find offensive (fyi: the older branch of Buddhism considers “Hinayana” to be derogatory and believes it’s a label based on a mistaken belief.) [To be fair, Fukuoka explicitly stated that he belonged to no religion and he claimed no expertise on the subject.] More likely to take offense are scientists and agricultural researchers, a group who takes it from both barrels. [Fukuoka says his opposition to scientists is that they fill the same role in society as the discriminating mind plays in mental activity, and he values the non-discriminating mind.]

I found this book to be loaded with food-for-thought. It raises a number of questions that aren’t answered inside (e.g. is Fukuoka’s approach scalable?,) but it’s a fascinating and highly readable introduction to natural farming. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in the subject.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Sunny Nihilist by Wendy Syfret

The Sunny Nihilist: A Declaration of the Pleasure of PointlessnessThe Sunny Nihilist: A Declaration of the Pleasure of Pointlessness by Wendy Syfret
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this book length essay, Syfret proposes that the reader reconsider the much-maligned philosophy of Nietzsche, arguing not only that it needn’t lead one into a dreary morass of gloomy thinking, but that it might just help one live more in the now while escaping brutal cycles of self-punishment. She has her work cut out for her, but she doesn’t shy from the challenge. Much of what she discusses could just as easily be presented under the guise of the less melancholious brother school called Existentialism, but Syfret embraces the vilified term, at least it’s cheerier side, under the moniker “Sunny Nihilism.”

Nihilism proposes that there is no inherent “god-given” meaning to, or purpose of, life. There’s no god to create such meaning and purpose. This notion is accepted as a given by most scientifically-minded people today, but it still results in the occasional visceral dread. For cravers of meaning, the argument goes like this: at least some of life is suffering, why should I subject myself to suffering if there isn’t some grand purpose and plan.

The retort of many nihilists and existentialists goes, “You only feel that way because you’ve made mountains out of molehills through your obsession with meaning, purpose, and divine plans. The experience of being able to experience life is awesome, but you make the whole of life such a daunting prospect that anything that doesn’t turn out perfectly makes you angst-ridden. You worry far too much, and – what’s worse – you’re usually worried about the wrong things. You’re missing the freedom that comes from being able to choose for yourself what you value and to put your setbacks in perspective.”

The book also explores such related issues as: coping with the pandemic, millennial malaise, celebrity deification, and how technology and social media influence the light and the dark sides of nihilism.

I found the book to be thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for anyone looking for a philosophy to help them live through the trials of our age.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Transcendentalist by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The TranscendentalistThe Transcendentalist by Ralph Waldo Emerson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free Online: Emersoncentral.com

In this short essay (about ten pages,) Emerson lays out an argument for Idealism over Materialism, and then contends that it’s reasonable to excuse oneself from the economic and civic aspects of society in favor of a simple life of introspection. [e.g. As Thoreau did in his years at Walden Pond.]

Emerson opens by suggesting that Transcendentalism is just Idealism by a different name. Idealism being a philosophical stance which puts consciousness at the fore while proposing that there is something beyond [that transcends] our experience of sensory information. The arguments put forth in favor of Idealism include the fact that sensory illusions exist and the Kantian critique of Locke’s view that there’s no more to the intellect than that which is or was sensory experience; Kant argues that there’s intuition. Kant’s influence is considerable, and Emerson explains that even the term “Transcendentalism” is derived from Kant’s use of the term “transcendental.”

The latter part of the essay echoes Emerson’s masterwork, the essay “Self-Reliance.” It proposes that it’s perfectly laudable to take advantage of the greatest gift one has, one’s consciousness, to introspect and indulge one’s need to better understand.

I may have mixed views on Emerson’s ideas, but one can’t say he doesn’t use language and reason and passion to make compelling claims. I found this brief essay to be both thought-provoking and inspirational, and I’d highly recommend it.


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BOOK REVIEW: Dark Tourist by Hasanthika Sirisena

Dark Tourist: EssaysDark Tourist: Essays by Hasanthika Sirisena
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection of, mostly autobiographical, essays rambles over a territory that includes: grief, the immigrant experience, sexuality, art and catharsis, and the profound impact of self-perception on one’s experience of life. The title most directly links to one of the more evocative essays, “Confessions of a Dark Tourist,” which is about the author’s travels back to her native country, Sri Lanka, to visit the northern region where a vicious civil war played out most intensely. [For those unfamiliar with the term, “dark tourism” is travel to areas that have recently experienced upheaval due to war, economic collapse, intranational conflict, or large-scale accidents and disasters.]

I used the term “rambles” in my opening sentence, and these essays (even within essays) can take the reader places a lawyer would object to on the grounds of relevance. That said, it’s a far better thing to be rambling and interesting than tidy and dull, and this book does a good job of keeping it interesting, using stories that are (I presume) meant to symbolically link to a point at hand. Sometimes, that symbolism hits, and sometimes it might not, but it does make for a compelling read. The author is valiantly candid about her personal struggles, particularly as they pertain to issues of self-perception owing to a lazy eye and her [bi-] sexuality.

If you’re a reader of essays and creative nonfiction, I’d recommend you give this book a look.


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