I spend most of my time in my head. I guess we all do really. In general, we’re blissfully unaware that our existential status is little more than “brain in a box”. But, there’s simply no way around admitting that the disconcertingly gray mass of squishy flesh situated in the space between our ears is the very processing filter through which we experience everything. This gelatinous like heap of tissue is the very center of experience itself. Everything we see, touch, taste, sense, feel, smell, and think arrives to us because of the congealed lump of ramen resting precariously behind our eyes…And now, all I can think about is ramen…
Most of us try to find ways to “get out of our heads”, but let’s be honest, unless you’ve got a guillotine in your garage, it’s unlikely to happen. And if you do happen to have a guillotine your garage, I have so many questions; questions about your sanity, your ethicality, and questions about your homeowners insurance. But, the most imperative lay pressing question I have for you is “can I see it?”
I like being in my head. I take every opportunity I can to trek into the sprawling depths of thought and thinking. I revel in the realm of ideas, but even I have to admit that some ideas only seemed like good ideas at the time. In fact, as a writer, I know all too well that some ideas don’t even look good on paper.
“Book reviews” are one such idea. In theory, the line of thinking that says I should do book reviews is a good idea that makes perfect sense. I read as much and as often as I can, and one reasonably assume that doing book reviews would be a ‘no-brained’ for me, but you’d be wrong. Now, before you go for garage stored guillotine and attempt to turn me into a Marie Antoinette impersonator, let me use my ramen bowl of a skull for a minute and I’ll try to explain. I read incessantly , yes, but I almost never read anything current, and it’s just as rare that I read anything popular. If I do happen to darken the pages of a trending text, I can assure you that it was not intentional, and that I was probably oblivious to its status as such.
If I was to offer a book review based on my real-life reading list, it’d be a review of a 200-300 year old book written by a highly pessimistic, highly dead German guy, whose philosophical theses were so obscure, dense, and/or complicated that he had to invent new words to try to communicate his ideas. Now, if the thought of such a book review incites a special tingle in your schnitzel, then you’d probably be one of the few who’d actually read it, but you certainly wouldn’t tell anyone, and you’d probably feel dirty and a little ashamed.
I’ve made two previous attempts at a book review. The first was a book sent from Speakeasy called The Lotus and the Roseby Matthew Fox and Lama Tsomo. I made a podcast and a video about it. The second was a book sent from the Tattooed Buddha titled, From Mindfulness to Insight, by Rob Nairn, Sean McGovern, and Heather Regan-Addis. For this one, I made another podcast, and wrote two articles, which you can find here and here. I think I faltered in both attempts because I’m not sure that I ever offered a real “review” of either book. I shared some thoughts. I pointed out a few things I liked about each of the books, and highlighted some things that I didn’t, but nothing that I feel qualifies as an explicit review. I got close, perhaps, very close, but not quite close enough. If there was an award getting as close to a book review as possible without actually giving a legitimate review, you’d be reading my acceptance speech, in which case right about now would be the time Kanye West would interrupt to propose that Beyoncé should have received the award. I wouldn’t even be that upset about it either. In fact, I’d be inclined to agree. Truth be told I’d be happy just to have been nominated.
I think what I actually did was share my experience of reading the book as I was reading it. At the time that seemed like a defect in my approach, a glitch in my process, it maybe it’s not a fault at all. Maybe it’s really a feature. We often talk about books in binary terms of good books or bad books, the books we liked and the books we didn’t. But, the most important question we ask in considering a book isn’t whether we liked it or not, or whether we thought it was good or not, but whether the book changed some part of us or not? Were we altered in some way for having read it? Did it take us somewhere we may never have gone had we not traversed it’s pages? When we cracked the spine of the book, did it also crack open a closed off area of who we are?
Steve Almond says that “the essential work of literary art” is to “make us more human than we were before”. Books are supposed to do something. They are supposed to do something to us, in us, and, perhaps, even through us. Almond writes that
we need books…because we are all in the private kingdom of our hearts, desperate for the company of a wise, true, friend. Someone who isn’t embarrassed by our emotions or her own, who recognizes that life is short, and that all we have to offer in the end is love.
Every new book presents us with the opportunity to meet an old friend, a friend who knows us better that we know ourselves. Heraclitus said that “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for its not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” So it is each time we return to a book we have read and reread on countless occasions; we are introduced to someone new, someone we have never met before, and, more often than not, that someone is ourselves.
I received another book to review from Speakeasy called Learning to Be: Finding Your Center After the Bottom Falls Out by Juanita Campbell Rasmus. I won’t lie, so far, I’m unimpressed. I’m a few chapters in and I have been largely unmoved. But, I’m refraining from falling into the trap of frivolously referring to the book as “bad” because who knows what part of myself I’ll meet along the way of reading it. I suppose we’ll find out together…