2021 Book Reviews V
Improbably, I have managed to read yet more books this year.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
I’ve spent a lot of time on this blog panning “stoicism”, so it might seem hypocritical to read the most well-known of the Stoic texts, but I think genuine, bona-fide Stoicism is pretty legit, I’ve just co-opted the word to mean being out of touch and ignorant of one’s own emotions, rather than being mindful and masterful of them. In light of my bashing of self-help books earlier this week, reading Meditations was a pretty funny experience; it is the self help book. Written almost two millenia ago, it concisely encapsulates what a whole industry of authors, Youtubers, “influencers”, whatever, are trying so hard to peddle today. They have made it all so complicated, but Aurelius makes it all so simple; don’t worry about other people, focus on yourself, realise that you can control your own thoughts, emotions and desires with conscious effort, but without you will be pulled in every direction by “pleasures of the flesh”, and most importantly, remember that you will definitely, 100%, absolutely die one day, so make the most of not being dead right now, and don’t worry too much about the whole dying thing anyway. Boom, Meditations in a single sentence.
Obviously I loved this book. One of my favourite metaphors for talking about mental health is rebalancing the coin, and that is a lot of what Aurelius advocates for. His philosophy is simple yet incredibly powerful, and makes a lot of similar, modern material I’ve consumed seem totally redundant. I can definitely see myself rereading this book in the future, perhaps when I find myself a little directionless - which is in itself a pretty glowing review, in my opinion.
Novice to Master: An Ongoing Lesson in the Extent of My Own Stupidity by Soko Morinaga
Having both enjoyed lapping up Aurelius' Classical philosophy and found myself meditating somewhat regularly again in recent weeks, I wanted to learn more about Buddhism and Eastern philosophy, and Zen seemed like a great place to start given that it’s now synomymous with calmness in our culture. Novice to Master reeled me in with its subtitle, particularly as I strongly identify as a stupid person.
One way in which I am (or, I suppose, was) stupid was in my wholehearted misunderstanding of Zen monasteries, and what is required to be a monk in one of them. While us gaijin Westerners might think of Zen monks as being completely pacifistic, serene in nature and forever reminiscent of Gautama Buddha a la Siddhartha, this is not the case. If you are a Buddhist monk, there is a good deal of being physically beaten by your teacher, often with some kind of wooden implement, and the beatings are especially bad if you can’t offer a satisfactory answer to your assigned koan. For followers of one whose teachings eschew ascetism for the middle path, Zen monks sure do rid themselves of every sensual pleasure possible. Morinaga describes his attaining enlightenment after a prolonged period of doing manual labour, eating very little, and crucially sleeping very little, at which point he essentially stops thinking and achieves perfect clarity. The cynics among you may argue that this was, in fact, the logical byproduct of extreme sleep deprivation.
With that being said, I do not want to be cynical about this, neither about the book, nor Morinaga, nor the Zen sect. Through his lifetime of abstinence, he attained a great deal of wisdom, and I learned a huge amount from reading this book. Morinaga is not only gracious and wise, but hilarious too - one parable he tells concludes with the lines
“Pissing is something that no one else can do for you. Only you can piss for yourself.”
which I think is a truly wonderful nugget of Zen wisdom. Not only did it dispell any romantic notions I may have had about the life of a Zen monk, this book whet my appetite to learn more about different sects and teachings of Buddhism, and I think it would do the same for anyone similarly interested.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Handmaid’s Tale is one of those books that is so good and so deserving of its popularity that I don’t really have anything to add in reviewing it. While overtly describing the brutality of the hyper-patriarchical Gilead, Atwood is more covert about the warnings this book carries. Its tragedy is how believable the whole thing is, despite being written in such a way that its events are meant to seem extreme, impossible. Not only is the story wonderfully written and compelling, I carried its contents with me throughout my day; this book made me think deeply about what it’s trying to say (in so much as I have the capacity to think deeply), in a way that few other books have. I have no idea why we read shit like The Catcher in the Rye at school instead of this.