Book Love: Zen and the Art of Talking Rubbish

This my first audiobook review (fanfare please)!  It’s the start of a bit of an audiobook theme, as I somehow managed to get five for free in a very short space of time – thank you to The Guardian and their “inspiring self-help audiobooks”, and free downloads from whatever Amazon’s audiobook thing is called.

Compared to my last mammoth of a post, this one should be short and sweet, mainly because I didn’t like the book, so have pushed most of it out of my memory.

My first (unfortunate) audiobook experience was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig, read by Michael Kramer.  I’ve been feeling quite contemplative recently, so I started this book with an open mind, genuinely expecting to get something out of it.  But instead I thought that, for the most part, the narrator was speaking either common sense or complete rubbish.  I found myself zoning out a lot and forcing myself to tune back in to what he was saying.

I didn’t really look forward to the next installment either.  I listened to this on my commute to and from work each day and forced myself to carry on with it – I don’t like to criticise something unless I’ve heard it out first, and have at least some understanding of it.  So I finished the book, constantly willing it to grow on me, but it never did.

I’m wondering whether all this is just because it’s an audiobook.  Maybe I find them more difficult to concentrate on, no matter what the content.  Well there are more to come, so all will soon be revealed…

I think a big problem was that I really didn’t like the main guy.  He sounded like a bit of an idiot and a crappy father, pretty full of himself and condescending.  I find it hard to relate to the philosophies of someone like that.  The only parts I did find vaguely interesting were the parts discussing what education should be, probably because it relates to my stage of life.  I get the feeling that I interpreted it wrong though – I was probably supposed to put it into a broader context and apply it to the universe (blah blah blah…).  Needless to say, I took it at face value instead.

I kind of respected Phaedrus (even if I didn’t necessarily like or agree with him), but he was painted as the villain, so that was a bust.

And apart from anything else, the narrator’s voice kept reminding me of Skipper from The Penguins of Madagascar.  (This is my new favourite cartoon, I’m a bit obsessed.  If you haven’t seen either the film Madagascar or the spin of TV series, you should – it brings back the glory days of kids cartoons.)

I definitely feel like I was missing something with this book, and a bit of me wants to read it in written form at a slower pace to see whether I can find whatever I missed.  But then the rest of me cannot put myself through that again.  With so many great books on my to-read list, it seems like a waste of time.  Maybe I could fully appreciate it if I properly studied it, but unfortunately I can’t see that happening.

Hmm, maybe that wasn’t quite as short as I hoped.  Or sweet.  To try and make up for that I leave you with this, simply because it gave me an excuse to spend an hour on YouTube watching Penguins of Madagascar videos.   I hope it cheers you up as much as it did me after a pretty bleak review!

Book Love: Potential controversy approaching…

Warning for religion talk and length – sorry!  (For the length)

One factor in me becoming a suddenly useless blogger was that I finished reading The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins.  Now, I know the mere mention of the name Dawkins is enough to have some people huffing and puffing and ranting away to themselves – hence the title of this post.  If you do plan to be offended by my views on the book, please look away now.  If you plan to disagree with me in a thoughtful and civil way, that’s absolutely fine and I can’t wait to read the comments!

Boring disclaimer over, let’s get on with it.  The reason this book stalled my blogging was because it was a lot to take in and I couldn’t quite decide what I thought of it.

Generally, I loved it.

I’ve been an atheist for a while now, and it was entirely my idea.  I decided on this before I’d ever heard of Mr Dawkins, and had decided 100% on my beliefs before I even discussed it with another person.  I spent a good few years genuinely trying to understand religious beliefs and how they came together into a valid argument, and couldn’t quite get there.  I couldn’t work out why I didn’t understand the arguments for the existence of God that I learned for my Religious Studies GCSE.  I just couldn’t get my head around them.  Then it dawned on me.  It wasn’t be being stupid or not studying hard enough – the arguments just didn’t make sense.  God doesn’t exist, so these arguments had no logical basis.

For years, I was convinced that God doesn’t exist, but I couldn’t manage to put my reasoning into words.  For the most part, this book spelled out exactly what I was thinking.  It was like someone had unscrambled my brain and laid out my thoughts in a logical and convincing way.  I felt so relieved that what I was thinking really did make sense.  I am now even more convinced of what I think, not because I’m taking everything Dawkins says as gospel (pun intended, sorry), but because I came up with these ideas on my own simply by thinking rationally about religion.

Overall, it was a very well written book, unsurprisingly given how much practice the author gets airing his views.  All the arguments were put across in a very readable and accessible way and I didn’t find it hard going at all.  Most of the arguments made complete sense to me, probably because they clarified what I already thought.  I reckon most people would be able to read the book easily, though I would recommend having at least a basic knowledge of the theories of evolution and natural selection, and possibly some understanding of (very) basic genetics.  These are referred to quite a bit without much explanation of the background and I think you would miss a lot by skipping over them.  They should probably form part of everyone’s education as well, if you want to start thinking broader.

For my part, I dredged up my rusty A-level biology (yes, I only took the final exam three years ago, but that doesn’t help my terrible memory!) and realised that I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it.  I’ve never been able to get into the physics-y bits of science, even with Brian Cox now on the scene, but I am completely fascinated by Biology and life and how we work.  I gathered that Richard Dawkins has written some more “sciency” books – they’ve been added to my list!  Maybe that’s why I’m not religious – I’ve never been able to accept the explanation “this happens because God makes it happen”.  That’s far too boring!

Something else that really resonated with me was the idea that religion does not deserve it’s current status, where it’s almost taboo to criticise religion, and everyone is walking on eggshells, afraid of causing offence.  If religious belief is so strong, surely it shouldn’t matter that some people object to it?  I almost added to my mini-disclaimer at the top of this post, apologising for if I offend anyone, but then realised that this is exactly what Dawkins is talking about!  It’s my blog, I’m not setting out to upset anyone, and my beliefs are just as valid as anyone else!  I shouldn’t feel ashamed of being an atheist, I do avoid talking about it with people I don’t know that well, muttering that “I’m not anything really” when people ask about my religion.  Silly…

There were a few things I didn’t like, though.  Dawkins is quite aggressive in some parts, and I understand why he rubs plenty of people up the wrong way.  I didn’t like at all his statement that he is out to convert people with this book.  I don’t think it is any more possible to force a believer to become an atheist than it would be to force me to believe in God.  The best way to change people’s beliefs is explaining reasoned arguments and fairly weighing up all the evidence, something Dawkins does extremely well.  The God Delusion contains more than enough of this reasoning to get his point across, and telling people they are naive and wrong is surely only going to put them on the defensive and make them determined to stick to their guns.  That’s what I do, anyway.

I also thought that some of his arguments were weaker than others.  I take the view that when your opponent makes a strong point, it is far better to acknowledge that before coming back with some equally strong arguments of your own, rather than making up a weak fight against it.  Dawkins doesn’t seem to share this view, refusing to accept that there might well be some strong arguments in favour of the existence of God or the benefits of religion.  His determination that religion is not necessary for some people to get through difficult times, for example, doesn’t sit well with me.  He thinks that they are pointlessly deluding themselves, but I (and I reckon most other people) see it as a good side effect of religion.  While I certainly think that the bad effects of organised religion outweigh the good, I don’t deny that these good aspects exist.

Religion definitely gives many, many people a sense of purpose, something that I really envy.  When I start thinking too hard about there not really being a point to us being here, having evolved in a very clever way but without any end game etc etc, I do start depressing myself a tad.  Dawkins seems to have found some other meaning for life, but for some reason this was one logic he didn’t explain very well.  I think he may have made an attempt in the final chapter, but for me this didn’t really seem to fit with the rest of the book.  It was a (very interesting) discussion of lots of different science-y things, but they didn’t really seem to have a point to them in this context.  For me, for now, the best strategy seems to be just to not think about it too hard and get on with what makes me happy!

PS  I can only apologise for the essay-style length of this post.  I know it goes against all advice for beginner bloggers, ever, but I got a bit carried away.  Thanks and congratulations if you made it this far!

Book Love: I am useless, but trying to be better

I have been a bit useless at the blog recently.  I have a nasty habit (which I really am trying to kick) of making a wonderful start on a project, then forgetting all about it and never quite getting round to carrying on.  This isn’t because I didn’t enjoy whatever the project happened to be, rather because, as I say, I can be a bit useless.  This attitude has left behind a long list of casualties including, but not limited to, cross-stitch, daily stretching, baking, and keeping a journal.

I am determined that blogging (and the reading project that makes it possible) will not join this list.

This is partly because, having proved hopeless at keeping a journal, I really want a record of this part of my life for the future, but mostly because I’ve heard from other bloggers that there are marvellous people out there on t’internet and I’ve already had some really lovely responses on the few posts I’ve put out there.

So I’m back for round 2!  And I have some catching up to do.  This is the other thing that tends to make me abandon ideas – I forget all about them, get behind schedule, and the prospect of catching up becomes far too daunting.  However, as a solution I’ve decided to try and let go of my perfectionist attitude (I said try, but make no promises!) and just get down what I can remember.  So while the following posts may not be the greatest book reviews in the world, they will at least exist!  Which is more than can be said for them at this present moment, as they are currently loitering in my brain, losing details at quite a rate of knots.

Yes, that’s right!  Despite my writing failure, the reading part of my challenge has continued apace.  Well, more apace than last year, anyway.  Apace by my standards.

Anticipating that this situation is relatively likely to reoccur in the future, I’ve created a brand spanking new page for the blog listing all the books I’ve been reading.  Hopefully this will mean that, even if I don’t make it to reviewing a book, there will still be a record of it.  Feel free to take a look for a sneak preview of what’s to come, or you could just wait with bated breath for the posts to come.  I’m sure everyone’s excited…