Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

By Robert M. Pirsig

Rating: 2 stars

I wasn’t hugely enjoying this book, even before I hit the thirty missing pages in my volume. Well, not so much missing, as mis-printed. Instead of pages 360-390(ish), I had two copies of pages 330-360. Although, to be honest, after I finished cursing, my second emotion was one of relief that I didn’t have to wade through another 30 pages of turgid philosophy, interspersed with some moderately interesting travel stuff and more interesting father/son and self-reflection.

The book is structured as a travelogue where the main character and his son travel round bits of the US, pontificating about Quality while trying to reconcile himself to the person he used to be before a nervous breakdown and court-enforced ECT. Frankly, the latter was a lot more interesting than the former. The bits about our protagonist reflecting on his previous life, which he has abstracted out into a separate persona he calls Phaedrus, along with his strained relationship with his son, make for an interesting character-driven plot. However, the large chunks of philosophy that he throws in make for the opposite. While I can sort of see what the author was trying to say about Quality (with a capital Q), I really don’t think he needed so many words to make his point.

Maybe the missing thirty pages would have made all the difference. Maybe I’d have been thunderstruck and be pontificating that this was the greatest book ever written, but somehow I doubt it. Now I’m in a quandary: I certainly have no intention of keeping this volume, but how can I donate it or give it away to someone in the full knowledge that there is a chunk missing. Am I going to have to *gulp* throw it away?? It goes against all my bibliophile instincts, but then so does giving it away, knowing it’s incomplete. Either way, its stay on my shelves will only be temporary.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099786405
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 1974

On Liberty

By Shami Chakrabarti

Rating: 4 stars

I can’t, in all honesty, say that I enjoyed this book, but I do think it’s an important one and one that I got a lot out of. I had to read it in reasonably short doses because it would just make make angry. The behaviour of politicians and the media leaves a lot to be desired and Chakrabarti has no qualms about dipping into the mire for examples to illustrate her case.

The fact that people have such short memories that they actively argue that rights accorded to a person purely for being human, without fear or favour, no matter their nationality, colour or creed, are a bad idea strikes me as privilege of the worst kind. The sorts of people so secure in their own station that they lose empathy. As Chakrabarti repeats more than once, we’re all foreigners sometime and somewhere.

I found this book important because it makes a clear and, to my mind, incredibly persuasive, case for universal human rights and gives me the tools to argue for those rights when I would have found it difficult to find the right words.

For full disclosure, I’m a member of Liberty, the civil liberties organisation of which Chakrabarti is director and I passionately believe in what they stand for, so me giving this book a high score is not unexpected. What I really want, and what is less likely to happen, is for those who argue that human rights shouldn’t be universal to read the book. I’d like to give it to Daily Mail readers and right-wing politicians. And, more positively, I’d love to see it in school libraries and other places where young people could read it and use it to help form their opinions.

The book is also highly readable. The arguments are laid out clearly, using examples and counter-examples from her own life and work both in the Home Office and with Liberty. Chakrabarti argues with the passion of a lifelong believer in her subject and the clarity of a trained lawyer at their best. This is a subject that is important for all of us: privileged or poor, refugee or citizen, having rights that we can all call upon against the terrifying power of the state is one of the things that allows a country to call itself civilised. And Chakrabarti shows us just how thin that veneer of civilisation in the UK really is.

Book details

ISBN: 9780141976310
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2014

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner

By James Hogg

Rating: 2 stars

This book is a satirical deconstruction of an extreme religious pre-deterministic position. The protagonist firmly believes himself to be saved by the Grace of god and so feels free to indulge his religious position to engage in some mightily unchristian behaviour. It’s difficult to say more without spoilers.

I think this book has problems with its structure. I nearly gave up with it several times before I had even got to the confession. The editor’s narrative is very slow to start with and the whole grammar feels awfully convoluted at times. The structure of a framing narrative, with a “found manuscript” in the middle didn’t work for me at all, and the whole book did rather feel ‘backwards’ in that I would probably have swapped the preceding and following portions of the editor’s narrative.

Without giving away spoilers, once we got into Robert’s (the titular sinner’s) narrative, I feel that the plot device used to get him to start sinning was not only somewhat obvious, but it also detracted from the strength of the argument and the philosophical underpinnings of the absolute pre-deterministic position.

An interesting idea, perhaps, but I’d be more interested to read a more contemporary take on the same issue.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853261886
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics
Year of publication: 1824

An Introduction to Political Philosophy

By Jonathan Wolff

Rating: 4 stars

I read parts of this book a few years ago for a political philosophy course I was doing at the time and found it very lucid and easy to read. When I later found it going cheap(ish) in a second hand bookshop I nabbed it without hesitation, even though the course was long finished. I’m a politics geek in any event, but I had never seriously considered the philosophy underpinning it before that course, and in this book, Wolff goes through that philosophy step by step.

He starts by suggesting that we shouldn’t take the idea of the state for granted and imagines a world without one (the ‘state of nature’) before going on to introduce the state and justifications for the idea of one person having political power over another, the types of state (who should wield such political power), with particular focus on the philosophical underpinnings of democracy and then discusses liberty and the distribution of property before a final chapter on individualism, justice and feminism.

It’s all clearly written and all the major thinkers on the subject are introduced, along with a large ‘further reading’ section at the end. I definitely found it a very interesting read, although the sections on individualism and justice were somewhat hard going. I’d definitely recommend this to anyone interested in politics and the theories of government.

Book details

ISBN: 9780199296095
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
Year of publication: 2012

To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch

By Immanuel Kant

Rating: 3 stars

In this short pamphlet, Kant lays out his thoughts on how to achieve permanent peace between nation states. Although I found some of it hard going, particularly the first supplement, some of it is very forward-looking, placing Kant very ahead of his time. He says, for example, that standing armies should be wound down and eventually abolished and that there should be no foreign debt between nations – ideas that are radical even today! Very interesting and thought-provoking stuff.

Book details

ISBN: 9780872206915
Publisher: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc.
Year of publication: 1795


By Thomas More

Rating: 4 stars

This was another book that I read for my philosophy class and another one that I enjoyed immensely. The edition that I had was a Penguin Great Reads, which strips out all editorial content and just presents the text. That, combined with a great translation, made it very easy to read. It’s also very short, at just under 140 pages.

Although I had obviously head of Utopia in the way that it’s drifted into the English language, I wasn’t hugely familiar with More’s original fictional island state. Reading it, Some of the proto-communistic ideas are interesting, but although More’s narrator states very clearly several times that there are few laws, there’s a lot of rigid social structures and the penalties for what laws there are are very harsh (slavery or death, for the most part).

I appreciate that More’s work is a critique of his own society, but I’ve been reading it as part of a discussion regarding philosophical works as blueprints for a way to run a society (cf Plato’s Republic).

All in all, Utopia sounds like an interesting place to visit, but I’m not sure I’d like to live there :).

Book details

ISBN: 9780141043692
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 1516

The Prince


Rating: 4 stars

I read this slim volume for the philosophy evening class that I’m attending and found it quite interesting. Machiavelli’s book is structured as advice to a would-be prince at the start of his reign, focussing on a new prince, rather than one who inherited his kingdom.

While Machiavelli has become a byword for unscrupulousness, cunning and deception, although some of the advice in this book is unsavoury, for the time and place it was written, I can’t help thinking that it’s mostly sound. There’s a sort of subtle draw to it when I find myself nodding at the advice before catching myself :).

It’s short and pretty easy to read. Interesting for its historical perspective and, in some ways, it’s still relevant to government today.

Book details

ISBN: 9780937832387
Publisher: Dante University of America Press
Year of publication: 1532


By Jean-Paul Sartre

Rating: 2 stars

This is a novel about alienation. The protagonist, Antoine Roquentin, is trying to write a book about an 18th century nobleman, but keep getting distracted by The Pointlessness Of It All. Although the book itself was easy enough to read, I don’t feel that I got much out of it. Despite the long soliloquies, I don’t feel that I really got under Roquentin’s skin or at the source of his ‘Nausea’ as it put it, or really sympathised with him at all. I just wanted to shake him and tell him to snap out of it.

I found the bits of the book where Roquentin is being active or talking to people or doing something much easier to read than the bits where he’s agonising over nothing at all. It possibly deserves a reread though — now that I know what to expect, I may get something more out of it.

Book details

ISBN: 9780140022766
Publisher: Penguin Books
Year of publication: 1938

God Is Not Great: The Case Against Religion

By Christopher Hitchens

Rating: 2 stars

Whatever you think of Richard Dawkins, having read several of both his science and advocacy books, the man is a good communicator. Having read God is not Great, I regret that I can’t say the same thing about Hichens. This book comes across much more like a rant than Dawkins’ similar work and although there are good arguments buried amongst the hyperbole, I’m not sure it’s worth searching them out. And although I haven’t confirmed this for myself, I’ve been told that some of his fact checking is poor and that there are several errors in the book.

Book details

ISBN: 9781843545866
Publisher: Atlantic
Year of publication: 2007

The God Delusion

By Richard Dawkins

Rating: 4 stars

I really enjoyed this book. Dawkins writes in a clear, concise and very readable manner in this book that discusses religion, morality and the arguments for and against the existence of a god. I enjoyed it because he put into words ideas that I’ve found difficult to vocalise and explained concepts and thought experiments that helped me clarify my own mind. For this, I can certainly forgive him his occasional tendency to slip into smug self-satisfaction.

The major issue with this book is that it is, to use a deliciously inappropriate metaphor, preaching to the choir. The kind of people that will read the book are those that already agree with a good proportion of what Dawkins has to say and are open to the rest. Still, that didn’t stop me from enjoyed it immensely.

Book details

ISBN: 9780593055489
Publisher: Bantam Press
Year of publication: 2006

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