"Real Philosophy: An Anthology of the Universal Search for Meaning"
by Jacob Needleman and David Appelbaum
Reading history and reviews
Finished on 1st October 2009It took me a long time to get through this book - in fact it became something of a running joke between me and Kyle about how slow the going was, and she kept urging me to stop. I suppose the reason that I kept at it was that I really liked the central idea of reading undigested extracts from a wide variety of classic philosophical works.
The approach is great in theory - starting from the premise that our primary drive is a "hunger for meaning", the book is divided into chapters relating to specific philosophical questions, such as "why are we here?" and "the fact of death". Each chapter begins with an section by the editors summarising the key ideas, which are followed by the extracts themselves. For me however the outline summaries were among some of the best parts of the book, consistently exciting my interest and giving me food for thought, while ironically many of the subsequent extracts were pretty turgid - most often due to archaic styles of language, although in some cases I simply didn't get the point that the writer was trying to make. At these points I yearned for the comfort of more accessible pop-philosophy books like Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy or Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World.
It wasn't all bad though - among the extracts are Descartes arriving at "I think therefore I am" and Plato's "Allegory of the Cave", and there are a number of other fascinating selections: Lewis Thomas' "Death in the Open",Tolstoy's "Esarhaddon, King of Assyria", and the "The Ninth Elegy" from "Duino Elegies" by Rilke all stood out for me. Many of the passages from less familiar Indian, Persian and Chinese works were also very enjoyable. In these cases the extracts had some literary or poetic quality which lifted them above the others, and made me want to read them again some time. So on balance I'm glad that I persevered - discovering the best selections outweighed the less good.