Posted by: Dan | February 8, 2007

January Books (a bit late)

So, it looks like I’ll be getting very little cover-to-cover reading done for at least the next three months. I was traveling a bit in January, and I am getting married at the start of March. Plus, I’ve got a couple of speaking engagements coming up, and my thesis is looming on the immediate horizon, so those things always cut into my reading time. Anyway, here are January’s books:

1. Joyful Exiles: Life in Christ on the Dangerous Edge of Things by James M. Houston.

Well, with a title like Joyful Exiles, I figured I sort of had to read this book. Plus, Dr. Houston is the founder of the graduate school where I am studying and he is a prime example of a person who has spent his lifetime pursuing downward mobility (as evidenced most recently by the way in which he as been pushed/allowed himself to be pushed to the margins of the Regent community — as Regent continues to pursue more “secular” standards of success). This book — inspired by the request of one of his sons, who asked him to write out the basic convictions that he has sought to live out over the last eight decades — is written for:

“the ‘exiles,’ those who need the moral courage to move away from the familiar and the conventional and into the dangerously exposed places, to prophetically critique our cultural norms and institutional attitudes… to live ‘dangerously on the edge’ of our culture.”

Sounds good right? Right. And it is good. Houston laments the professionalisation of Christian ministry, the way in which technique has overwhelmed the Church, and the status-seeking of Christian institutes of education, while entering into dialogue with people like Kierkegaard, Dante, Dostoyevski, Herbert, and many more. So I don’t know why this book didn’t resonate more with me than it did. At times it felt a bit scattered, at other times it was too meandering, and when Houston did get to places that excited me (like the subsection entitled “The Obligation to Live in Prison or Exile”) I felt like he either said too little, or what he said had already been said (and said better?) by another author. Still, for those who are unfamiliar with these themes, and for the laity in particular, this book may well be worth reading.

2. An Introduction to Metaphysics by Martin Heidegger

I didn’t mean to read this whole book. I meant to just read the first essay (“The Fundamental Question of Metaphysics” — which I had heard was one of keys to understanding all of Heidegger’s work) but the first essay was so damn promising that I ended up getting drawn into the rest of the book. The entire book, is based upon one fundamental question, which Heidegger believes is the fundamental question. Thus, in his opening line Heidegger asks:

“Why are there things-that-are rather than nothing?” (“things-that-are” is my translation of Heidegger’s rather obscure word [Seiend] which is translated with the word “essents” in the edition that I own)

This fundamental question then prompts a preliminary question:

“How does it stand with being? (“being” = Sein)

The rest of the book is devoted to asking these two questions. Note that Heidegger is not necessarily completely answering these questions, for he believes that the pursuit of the question is more important than the desire to systematically answer all questions. Furthermore, as he asks this question, Heidegger argues that, since the early Greeks, the entire history of Western philosophy has completely botched the realm of metaphysics (well, actually, I think we’re talking about ontology, but let’s not split hairs). Thus, he goes back to the early Greeks and, through a study of linguistics and poetry, delimits “being” from four interrelated spheres: thinking (being is the underlying, the already-there), appearance (being is the enduring prototype), becoming (being is permanence), and “the ought” (being is the datum). Furthermore, Heidegger argues that these spheres are not arbitrarily chosen but belong together through an “inner necessity.”

Therefore, Heidegger concludes that “being” is the basic happening which first makes possible historical being-there (Dasein) amid the disclosure of the “essents” as a whole. Thus, the question of how it stands with being, is the question of how it stands with our being-there in history — and this being-there is only a true standing in history (as opposed to a staggering through history) if it is rooted in the pursuit of the question of being and nothingness. Thus, this key element of being-there (Dasein) is that which leads Heidegger to explore the question through the perspective of being and time — it is time, and not thinking, that is the perspective that discloses the unfolding of being.

So, I hope this doesn’t sound too nonsensical to those who haven’t read this book. Heidegger is a bit of frustrating read because he has this nasty habit of taking words that we think we know, and giving them new meanings. Now, that wouldn’t be so bad but then he goes on to give that new meaning a new meaning, and then gives that new meaning another new meaning. After he’s done doing that, he goes back to using the original word and you’ve got to constantly remember the layers of meaning that he has built of around the word — which can be difficult when you’re reading the book sporadically on night shifts.

All in all, I found this book to be quite stimulating and promising in the first half, but I felt that the second half was a bit of a let-down.

3. Sloth by Gilbert Hernandez

I have come close to giving up on finding another illustrated novel that is comparable to Craig Thompson’s Blankets or Art Spiegelman’s Maus — those are both magnificent pieces that take full advantage of their genre. I read Sloth because it was highly recommended to me by a friend that reads a lot more illustrated novels (and comics) than I do.

The book was okay, I guess. The story was so-so (teens growing up in a small town, it looks like something interesting might happen… but it doesn’t), the art was so-so, and although there is one major (unexplained) plot twist, I’m not convinced it really worked. I don’t know, I’m getting close to abandoning this genre, so if anybody knows any great illustrated novels (because when they’re great, they can be really great), please let me know.

4. The Secret Lives of Men and Women compiled by Frank Warren.

This is another compilation put together from Warren’s postsecret project (cf. http://www.postsecret.blogspot.com). There are some really great pieces in this book, but it’s the sort of book that you could sit down and read for an hour in the bookstore. If you’re going to buy a postsecret book, buy the first one — they make for fascinating conversation when you leave them on the coffee table.

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