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All Things Shining, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly

2011/03/25

Every now and then I read a book which makes me wish I were a lot smarter and well-read than I really am. Now, as a librarian, you would probably expect me to have read quite a bit, and I have, but books like this one make me realize how much more there is (even though I already have forty-nine books checked out of my current library). In this work, two philosophers come together to examine what they deem “western classics” and examine their connection with the way our world is today. For those who lean towards the melancholic, “who wants to lure back the shining things, to uncover the wonder we were once capable of experiencing and to reveal a world that sometimes calls forth such a mood; anyone who is done with indecision and waiting, with expressionlessness and lostness and sadness and angst, and who is ready for whatever it is that comes next; anyone with hope instead of despair, or anyone with despair that they would like to leave behind, can find something worthwhile in the pages ahead” (xi). And although this is a bold and ambitious claim, I would argue that they succeed.

The first chapters address “contemporary nihilism” in a very unique manner, comparing and contrasting David Foster Wallace and his work “Infinite Jest” with Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat Pray Love.” The authors contend that both authors are addressing the “tension between commitment and choice” (27) and that “although each is motivated by a deep sense of confusion and lostness, a sense that the darkness of being adrift is a central feature of the age, nevertheless each feels strongly that the writer’s responsibility is to show the way forward, to offer a vision of the hopeful possibilities available in the modern world” (28). The following chapters jump backwards in history to Homer and other Greek literature, then to Augustine, Dante, Kant, and so on. In each chapter, the authors look at the society and culture which surrounds each writer or work, including the religious and philosophical assumptions that the general population lived with, and how that should affect the modern reading.

This is probably one of the better books I have read recently, even with a quick skimming through. Although the idea of using classic literature to explore philosophy has been done before, this one is particularly poignant as it considers the secular nature of our contemporary society, and makes readers consider what may be lost in a culture that is so disconnected from the sacred.

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