BOOK REVIEW: Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law by Busshō Lahn

Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law: A Commentary on Hakuin's “Song of Zazen”Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law: A Commentary on Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen” by Bussho Lahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Release Date: December 20, 2022 [In India, may be out in your area.]

This book consists of a collection of essays inspired by the poem, “Song of Zazen,” written by the 18th century Zen master, Hakuin. Hakuin’s poem is brief (about forty lines,) and the essays composed by a present-day Zen priest (Lahn) offer commentary on a stanza-by-stanza basis. The book is divided into fourteen chapters, though the final chapter isn’t a stanza commentary.

I enjoyed reading this book and learned a great deal from it. The book benefits from the fact that the author is not rigidly sectarian. Therefore, the book is not doctrinaire, which warms the reader to the teachings. It’s also useful because it allowed the author to freely draw examples and quotes from a variety of sources, some of which may be more familiar or relatable to neophyte readers.

The last chapter offers a discussion of the fundamentals of zazen (seated meditation) as well as some other ancillary information that may be useful to readers new to Zen Buddhism, its practices, and its sutras. If you’re interested in Zen Buddhist meditation and philosophy, you may want to give it a look.


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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

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

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

Amazon.in Page

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 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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On Intrusive Thoughts & Shoving Someone in Front of a Train

The other day I read that a man had pushed a person onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train. 

The week before that, I'd read in a book by Robin Ince that a person who -- having had a baby thrust into his hands -- has intrusive thoughts of throwing said baby out of the nearest window is [believe it, or not] the best person to ask to hold one's baby.

The argument goes like this, the person having these intrusive thoughts is being intensely reminded by his or her unconscious mind that under no circumstances -- no matter what unexpected or unusual events should transpire -- is he to throw the baby out the window (or otherwise do anything injurious.)

I've heard that, at some point, virtually everyone has some type of awkward intrusive thought such as the thought of pushing a stranger in front of a train. 

Most never do it, nor truly want to do it.

Then this one time... someone did.   

BOOK REVIEW: Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

Civil DisobedienceCivil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This 30+ page political philosophy essay argues that it is one’s responsibility to avoid letting the government make one complicit in its unjust activities. The major points of contention for Thoreau were two-fold: state facilitation of the institution of slavery and the Mexican-American War (which Thoreau – like many – saw as a shameless land grab.) Thoreau put his money where his mouth was, and was briefly jailed for failure to pay taxes. [This brief stay might have been much longer had not someone paid the tax bill without Thoreau’s knowledge. While Thoreau doesn’t name said individual (if he ever knew who it was,) he treats that person as someone who did a bad deed in his name rather than someone to be thanked.] The discussion focuses heavily on tax-paying (or, rather, non-payment) as opposed to other acts of civil disobedience / passive resistance / non-violence such as breaking unjust laws.

This essay has been cited as an influence by Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Leo Tolstoy, and many who are less well-known as proponents of non-violent resistance against oppressive or unjust governance. While the meeting of unjust governance with passive resistance has shown itself to be a powerful strategy in the intervening years, Thoreau was at the vanguard of thinking on this issue. Later activists would expand the domain of civil disobedience greatly, and it would become more explicitly associated with non-violent opposition. [Thoreau doesn’t talk up the virtue of avoiding violence like Gandhi does, but he also doesn’t mention violence as an alternative to his approach — and it seems he would find violent acts as morally reprehensible as supporting the government in its acts of aggressive violence.] I would be interested to know the following of this essay by different elements of the political spectrum today, and how that following was influenced by those who took up its banner. [It has a libertarian “the government is fundamentally untrustworthy” vibe going, but I suspect it is probably popular with elements the left who generally view the government as a savior against corporations, given the essay’s past proponents. Though I could be wrong.]

Thoreau doesn’t focus on his own case, which he only gets to well into the essay and which he addresses in quick manner. Rather, he spends most of the essay discussing the justification for breaking the law (i.e. not paying taxes) and what is moral and proper and what is not. [e.g. He says that he pays the highway tax because his desire to be a good neighbor matches his desire to be a poor subject. [paraphrased.]] Obviously, it’s a nuanced issue. If no one paid their taxes who had a gripe with the government, it might just result in everyone finding a gripe with the government – in perpetuity. Thoreau, himself, has quite a negative view of government’s ability to be just. While his focus is on abolition of slavery and the war with Mexico, it’s not as though he proposes that these are exceptional and uncharacteristic cases.

Though it is short, this essay can be obtained as a standalone work (as it’s reviewed here,) but it’s also included in many Thoreau collections and political philosophy anthologies. Like it or lump it, it’s definitely worth reading because it addresses some pretty fundamental questions about what an individual’s responsibilities are to the government as well as what are one’s responsibilities to resist the government’s activities.

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