Wednesday, June 8, 2011
All Things Shining - Audio Book Week Review
To sum up: In the first half of All Things Shining, professors Hubert Dreyfus of Berkeley and Sean Dorrance Kelly of Harvard attempt to assemble a case:
1. We live in a nihilistic age in which nobody knows how to create meaning in a lastingly satisfying way, and thus life seems quite bleak. People get depressed.
2. There is no way to find deeply satisfying meaning in daily life without some sort of moment to moment transcendence. But even the occasional "shining" moments in day to day life do not provide enough lasting joy or meaning to help us transcend our nihilistic ennui.
3. However, if we could live the meaning-filled lives of the Ancient Greeks, in which belief in gods supported their conception of every moment as imbued with passionate intensity (a whole lotta 'shine'), then we could find truly satisfying meaning and not have to stumble around depressed and rudderless, shallowly grasping at distractions or addictions or power or money to take our minds off our ennui.
These two authors are Western philosophy experts, and thus one anticipates quite credible and lively analysis. And they reference works as various as Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert (seriously? and they borrow the content of her TED talk too), Infinite Jest and The Pale King by David Foster Wallace, Macbeth & Hamlet, The Iliad, and Moby Dick (to name just a high-profile handful of the works sampled here) as they attempt to support their case. Promising, no? One hopes to receive both the promised tour of the major works of Western literature and philosophy and a quickened understanding of how one might connect them productively if not transformationally to one's own life. But...
I found the tone (and perhaps this is partly the writers and partly the style of the performance) overly light and a tad patronizing, and some of their analysis unconvincingly shallow or skewed; if you're a listener who's already familiar with the texts they reference, the writers' case actually breaks down a bit as they seem to stretch interpretations and under-support some claims in order to touch on such a wide variety of examples.
And listening (rather than reading) makes returning to sentences or ideas one questions a bit of a hurdle: This sort of complex and extended analysis would bear much flipping of pages if one were reading the text version, so the more temporally linear form of audio book doesn't seem to work quite as well here as it does for straight narrative or relatively straightforward non-fiction.
So here's the truth, in fairness to the authors: I need to give this book a chance. And that means I need to get the text and mark it up, argue in the margins, and take notes so that I can thoroughly examine the writers' ideas and analysis. I'm going to shelve the latter half of the audio book until I can listen to it in tandem with reading the text.
If you're contemplating the audio of All Things Shining, I say: Do the tandem read. You'll be better off.
Who'd Enjoy This Especially:
Perhaps those only vaguely familiar with the great works of literature and philosophy in the Western world would find this book a welcome refresher w/opinionated commentary about how they pertain to modern life. In fact, I suspect that's the authors' primary intended audience.
In addition, if you use the text form along with the audio for a tandem read, I think that folks who know these works reasonably well and love a good argument will like it too, because they'll be arguing with the authors all the way along!
Action: Go out and get the book from the library, then persist.
FYI, all you feminists: Few female writers are included here, at least in the first half of the book, I suppose because not all that many are included in the traditional "dead white male" canon of the West. Sigh.