What I've Been Reading

Tom Morris

One thing I've recently come to realize is that there are many people who seem to find it fascinating that I'm a philosopher. I'm not a professor of philosophy. I was for many years, but not any more. I'm just a philosopher. And that seems to generate a real curiosity. What kind of person becomes a philosopher? Is the job requirement a towering intellect and a proclivity to use words like, well, 'proclivity'? People who get to know me at all realize quickly that this can't be so. But they still wonder. What is it like to be a philosopher? After my talks around the country, a surprising number of people just come right out and ask me things like "What happens in a philosopher's house?", "What does a philosopher go around thinking about?", or "What does a philosopher read?" The answers might surprise you.

This morning, as we opened our eyes to a new day, my wife's first words amounted to a disquisition about good, evil, and the problem of free will. This former dental hygienist and full time homemaker was simply uttering her waking thoughts. She went on for some minutes as I blinked hard and tried to focus. My first conscious thoughts, just moments before, had been "I wonder what would happen if I microwaved the dog's food? Would he like it? I mean, the canned food would be fine, sort of like beef stew, but would it make the dry pellets gummy? I guess it would have to cool off first, or it would burn his tongue. If dogs ever get their tongues burned. But surely they do. What if they eat scraps with Texas Pete or Tabasco in them? It's amazing, dogs can eat anything. In Mexico, they eat Mexican food. And that's hot. Yeah, maybe microwaving would work."

So it could be that you don't want to know after all what happens at a philosopher's house, or what a philosopher goes around thinking. But there still remains the question of what a philosopher reads. And that can vary in interesting ways. There is no science to it at all. I just follow my nose. I read whatever strikes me as interesting, and read it until it fails to engage me. Creativity is always enhanced by exposure to very different things. Sometimes I go through stretches of reading Shakespeare, or Aristotle, or Seneca. I'm not in that sort of stretch now. I'm all over the place. Last year I had a policy - one old book, one new book. This year my only policy is to have no policy. Here's briefly what I've been reading in the past couple of weeks.

For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today
by Jedediah Purdy (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
I first read about Purdy in the New York Times Sunday Magazine. He's now a law student at Yale, and, by the pictures I've seen, may still qualify as young enough to be called "precocious." This articulate student of human culture grew up in the hills of West Virginia and was mostly home schooled by parents who encouraged his curiosity about everyday things and guided him to read books that matter. His own first effort at publication shows the remarkable results of an education devoted to devouring the classics instead of plodding through mediocre textbooks in the company of chronological peers who would rather be racing/drinking/flirting/watching TV/lighting up a joint/doing anything but thinking.

Purdy's book is in many ways impressive, insightful, and great fun to read except in those rare stretches where it totally drives me crazy. His thesis seems to be that we're in deep trouble because the disease of irony has infected all of modern American culture and, through us, is spreading globally. He's alarmed at evidence that we all at some level have come to admire the smark aleck, wisecracking know-it-all who stands aloof from the entanglements of real commitment and outside the responsibilities of any genuine human community, entertaining himself and others by sarcastically commenting on it all. And this has practical implications. Politics was once viewed as a serious engine of change. It's now just entertainment fodder for late night comedians. We are afraid to trust, reluctant to commit, and ignorant of some of our deepest spiritual needs. We're fast on the road of inadvertantly cutting ourselves loose from all that matters most, and we have no idea where this is taking us.

Here is the overall argument in a nutshell: We are each culturally awash in ironic isolation, sardonic wariness, and a reluctance to trust anything or anybody. And so we find ourselves outside the traditional web of support within which alone human beings can flourish. This is an uncomfortable place to be, and as a result, people tend to take two equally unfulfilling paths toward finding some way out. First, there is what Purdy sees as the superstitious path of new age hocus pocus, exemplified in the inexplicable fixation on angels that began to generate a deluge of books and television shows a few years ago. He believes that this is an attempt by desperate people to assure themselves that the position of the individual human being standing alone in life is ok, since we are never really alone but rather have a band of heavenly valets watching over us and taking care of our deepest needs.

The other attempted escape route from ironic estrangement Purdy sees in the contemporary business literature of individual heroism - what he thinks of as the cult of the entrepreneur and the "free agent." The world of business is now viewed as an arena in which the isolated individual can, as a "free agent", use his talents to build whatever he wants, for his own good, to the real neglect of the greater surrounding society, or even of the earth itself. Purdy sees the myths of the modern business world as alone encouraging commitment, but never to more than the self and it's material fantasies.

Along the way of his argument, Purdy badly misinterprets contemporary business writer Tom Peters as preaching a gospel of self-absorbedness. And he somehow views Fast Company Magazine as aiding and abetting this crass evangelism. The weakness of Purdy's reading of both Peters and Fast Company is, ironically enough, that what literary critics call "the hermeneutics of suspician" - an outgrowth of the same mindset that gives rise to the ironic distance he so decries - govern his interpretation of each.

Both Tom Peters and the editors of Fast Company recognize that, to some extent, like it or not, we are in a "free agency" marketplace where things are less stable than in the past. We each have to learn how to maximize our abilities to contribute our talents in a marketable way to any employer who may need our skills. And if we find ourselves working in an environment that is not conducive to human growth and fulfillment, we have options. Fast Company regularly profiles companies that are doing it right - companies that are great places to work because they give their employees a sense of both community and commitment - the things Purdy values most.

Despite it's being marred by a misreading of this contemporary business literature, I think that Purdy's book makes a strong case for returning to a sense of moral commitment in everything that we do. It's a quick read and is a book worth reading.

For the Time Being
By Annie Dillard (Knopf, 1999)
Annie Dillard is a remarkable writer. When I was a graduate student at Yale, many of my friends in the Divinity School often talked about the power of her writing and the subtlety of her spirituality. In this book, she confronts the enormity of the world's suffering, the cruelty and tragedy of world history, and the fragile place of the individual in such a huge cosmos, seeking to reconcile it all with the over all responsibility of a Creator God. The book weaves a tapestry of insight from the most amazingly diverse factoids imaginable. And the evocative power of it's composition is considerable. I found the conclusions to be weaker than I would have liked to see. But it is worth a look for people wanting to gain a bigger picture perspective on human suffering.

Another book I've read recently on the same topic is writer Reynold's Price's recent short essay, Letter To A Man In The Fire (Scribner, 1999). This is a work that gets right to the point. Price is a spiritual man, a Christian, who wrestles with pain and suffering in his own life, as well as in the life of the broader world. I have quoted from this perceptive and powerful little essay in my recent book, Philosophy for Dummies (IDG, 1999), where I've also put together a number of chapters on the problem of evil that might be interesting reading for anyone wanting to dig philosophically deeper into the topic.

Being Peace
By Thick Nhat Hahn (Parallax Press, 1987)
My favorite quote from this book: "Happiness is available. Please help yourself to it." This Vietnamese Buddhist monk writes simply and pleasingly about happiness and personal peace in the modern world. The book is sometimes even childlike in its simplicity, but that gives it an almost meditative impact on the reader. I always enjoy Hahn. But my favorite of his books is still Peace Is Every Step, which I first referred to in the last chapter of my book True Success (Berkeley, 1996), a chapter about the importance of enjoying life and work.

How Do We Know When It's God?
By Dan Wakefield (Little, Brown, 1999)
A novelist and screenwriter recounts his spiritual odyssey. This is an incredibly honest detailing of one man's ups and downs in pursuit of a good life. The main theme throughout is discernment: How do we know when a decision is the right one? Our lives are made up of choices. How can we ever be sure we are doing the right thing? Wakefield shares his sometimes amazing struggles with the challenge of discernment. His accounts of experiences with the California based movement known as EST are almost alone worth the price of the book. This is in many ways a disturbing narrative, but its honesty is powerful, and you can't read it without the strangely comforting realization that, no matter how bad things might be in your own life, someone is out there having it worse.

Managing With Wisdom
By Jack Grossman (Pelikan, 1996)
One of my favorite all time success books was published by this small press, a book called Think Like A Winner, by Walter Doyle Staples. Grossman's more recent book is a gem on management and work relationships that should be read by every young manager, as well as by older managers who need to reorient their efforts in such a way as to really help their associates. It is short, precise, and genuinely humane in the sound advice it gives. Grossman's management students get a great head start on the game, if this book is a good indication of what he teaches in the classroom. I'm glad this one crossed my path.

By James Gleick (Pantheon, 1999)
The theme of this well written book seems to be that life is speeding up so fast, we hardly have time for anything any more. Which is why I haven't finished reading it yet.

That's it for the reading of the past two weeks, not counting all the newspapers and magazines that come my way. I've just started two novels, Cry, The Beloved Country, by Alan Paton, and Jitterbug Perfume, by Tom Robbins. I'll let you know how they are.

Now, off to feed the dog!


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