Tag Archives: philosophy

Read the Manual

The main appeal of religion, philosophy and self-help is that, as disciplines, they promise to lay out a framework for how to live a good and meaningful life. The fact that there’s no consensus between–or even within–fields as to what “good” and “meaningful” actually are is mostly delightful, and occasionally frustrating. As you pursue each path, though, a funny thing happens: searching for the answer becomes more important than finding the answer, and before you know it, boom! A life well-lived.

Sharon Dolin’s Manual for Living holds a triple boom between its covers, three sets of poems inspired by philosophy, art and religion. Each set imposes meaning on life using a different set of standards and poetic techniques, offering the reader a choose-your-own-adventure series of poems to compare, contrast, mull over and memorize.

Cross-section of the cover of Manual for Living. Spotted at University of Pittsburgh Press. Click through for source page.

Cross-section of the cover of Manual for Living. Spotted at University of Pittsburgh Press. Click through for source page.

The first section, “Manual for Living,” especially lends itself to memorization and reading aloud; it’s musically clever, with consonance and assonance for days, as in “Desire Demands its Own Attachment”:

Daunted by disastrous consequences?
Don’t be. Everyone–even you–
delights in devil-scape. Do you
rue more than revel? (11).

The poems’ titles are direct quotes from the stoic philosopher Epictetus, one of the original “suck it up and deal” guys, whose main piece of advice, in contemporary terms, best translates to “Dude, chill.” Dolin has a lot of fun restating the original epigrams in clever, musical phrases designed to stick in your memory:

Great that he gamed you. Grand
she’s gone gloomy, gorged on hemlock.
Colossal you’ve got no guy, no gig, no granita.

Greet each gravity with gratitude like a cavity

(“Everything Happens for a Good Reason”, 11).

Dolin’s framework for section two, “Black Paintings,” is a series of artworks created by Francisco Goya near the end of his life. If you’re not familiar with the works, it can be useful to click back and forth between the poems and the paintings as you read, to get the full effect. Even if you are familiar with the paintings, though, you’ll benefit from consulting them together, as the somber, introspective tone Dolin uses in this set of works mirrors the darker colors and themes Goya explores.

Calling them meditations on death is, and is not, an oversimplification. Consider “Atropos, or The Three Fates”:

O you in the back with your mantic
mirror, how do you know

how long to spill my skein–
black blood of me when I shall

no longer be? (48).

There’s a big difference between accepting fate and questioning it; the chirpy stoicism of section one has been replaced by a moody, almost resentful, challenge to the powers that be.

This challenge is resolved in section three, “Of Hours,” which is modeled after a popular form of medieval prayer book. As the name suggests, there’s a prayer-poem for each hour of the day, and each poem addresses a specific spiritual concern expressed through the beauty of the natural world observed at the given time. The speaker’s day begins at dark-thirty with a request for guidance:

…I am thrumming

your praises as the only way to hear
with the soul’s inner ear.

Tell me what you desire of me
(“Psalm of the Flying Shell (4:30 a.m.)”, 53).

As the day progresses, the style becomes more and more experimental, mirroring how a day can begin in order and gradually succumb to chaos. The prayers are what keep the speaker–and the reader–anchored to the world. Consider the dreamy images and style of “Moon Lilies (5:30 p.m.)”:

In the suffering hour >>
                              oozing blood

pages gone dark
             Sabbath will be starlit

(Help me find you in time) (83).

Just as there is no one answer in life, there’s no one “right” way to craft poems in Dolin’s work. It’s obvious she takes great pleasure in playing with sounds and forms, not so much concerned with truth as with the search for it, and the many ways one can search. If you consider yourself a spirited or philosophical person, or if you like playful explorations of thought and language, you really should read the Manual.

You can do that quite easily by clicking here to make a reservation in the catalog, and having these poetic devotions sent to the library location of your choice. How do you make sense of everyday living? What forms of consolation, poetic or otherwise, have helped you grapple with the many challenges of adulting? Leave us a comment and share your wisdom.

–Leigh Anne


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Popular Philosophy

Popular and philosophy: these are two words that don’t go together very often.  Anybody who has had to take philosophy courses knows that it is a subject that can be weighed down by overanalysis, and–probably more so than any other subject–by academic jargon and writing that is less-than-thrilling to read.  There are some titles, however, that make philosophy not just more accessible but downright enjoyable.  I love learning about philosophy, for its own merits, but also because philosophy has historically been so intertwined with art, science, mathematics, and religion.  

This is a collection of titles that bring philosophy out of the ivory tower and into the living room.     

The Consolations of PhilosophyAlain de Botton – Famous for his TED talks, de Botton goes into the lives and teachings of 6 philosophers, from Socrates to Montaigne and beyond.  This book breaks these philosophies down to their essentials, gives backgrounds and examples, visual aides, and much more.  While insightful, this book is also light and humerous.   

Sophie’s World Jostein Gaarder– A 14 year old girl begins to receive a correspondence course in philosophy through letters.  The history of philosophy is revealed as events surrounding Sophie and the mysterious philosophy teacher Alberto Knox bring their entire reality and existence into question.  

A Brief History of ThoughtA Philosophical Guide to LivingLuc Ferry –  Influential philosophers and theories are introduced and deconstructed.  The author boils these philosophies down to the essential that can be directly applied by the individual. The author also examines Christianity in the same method he examines philosophical doctrine, and the resulting analysis and comparison is fascinating. Excellent read.

Change Your Thoughts, Change Your LifeWayne Dyer –  Made popular by his appearances on Oprah and PBS, Wayne Dyer is a widely known self-help guru (confession, I also love the self-help genre).  In this work, Dyer goes through the Tao Te Ching (or Dao De Jing) verse by verse, to see what spiritual insight can be gained by the classic work by Lao Tsu.  Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life is valuable as a window into eastern philosophy, a spiritual work, a self-help guide, and an all-around inspiring read.  I highly recommend it.     

I’d love to hear about some other popular philosophy titles that are out there!  What titles have you all found to be both un-daunting and enlightening?      

–Scott M.


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Banned Books Week: Some Final Thoughts

Eleventh Stack brings Banned Books Week 2015 to a close with a guest post from Carl, who works at our West End location. We hope you enjoy his philosophical ruminations about censorship and intellectual freedom. Our regularly-scheduled monthly recap will return next week.

I’ve never been entirely clear as to why a book is banned. Particularly in this country, where the political culture is based on rebellion and allotments of freedom, it seems paradoxical. The champions of liberty gag an individual’s artistic expression while withholding that material from the community. The process is autocratic and reeks of distrust. Rather than acknowledging the complexity of life, banning a book assumes life to be a simple, black and white process. In other words, it is a denial of truth.

Literature and stories challenge readers to reexamine themselves while exploring and developing points of view previously unknown. Even the most nefarious text offers a glimpse into new ways of being and knowing for a reader. But exposure does not necessarily entail acceptance. A reader must question the work. The human intellect then serves as our bulwark against stupid. I’ve read plenty of text that I found banal and dry, oh such a bore! I’ve read text that is morally reprehensible, at least to my Catholic upbringing. Each time I’ve come away a better person. I’ve learned how to develop arguments against what I find disagreeable. Rather than throwing a tantrum and begging for salvation, I’ve developed my soul, or my intrinsic nature – those qualities that make me who I am, how I learn and choose to be.

Throughout history, publications challenging the status quo and/or “normal” ideas of propriety have been burned, desecrated or otherwise removed from view by figures of authority. Whether this is due to a ruler wanting a fresh intellectual start for the culture, as it happened in Qin China c. 200 B.C.; or because the publication was deemed a threat to society, much the way certain parents freaked out over imaginative representations of witchcraft in Harry Potter and Sorcerer’s Stone like it was 1692; such reactions, when successful, do indelible harm to intellectual freedom, creativity and individuality.

See copyright notice in comic sidebar. Additional copyright © 2015, Debbie Ridpath Ohi. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted. Click through for artist's comic use policy.

See copyright notice in comic sidebar. Additional copyright © 2015, Debbie Ridpath Ohi. All rights reserved unless otherwise noted. Click through for artist’s comic use policy.

Not to mention the sad cases of books being lost in a major disaster or to the slow ravages of time. Though items like those were not banned in any official sense, their destruction bans enlightenment. Legends of rivers running black with ink dot history. Whether these stories report full on destruction of a library, or represent a general brain-drain, the moral stays the same – the removal and/or destruction of books (and art work generally) forces thinkers to reinvent the wheel and desolates the cultural landscape.

There is no such thing as a bad book. Certainly it could be written poorly, but in such a case there is something to be learned from the author – how not to write. But what of the ravings of a racist lunatic as seen in Mein Kampf? What can be gained from that exposure? I wouldn’t know. I haven’t read it. But I’m happy that I have the choice to do so. Literature is a window to historical truth. It allows us to climb into the minds of persons no longer alive, but who, for better or worse, impacted our world. As much as we may want to vaporize aspects or persons from the historic record, doing so obscures truth and hampers humanity’s ability to grapple with change in a knowledgeable, peaceful and complex way.




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Om Sweet Om: Yoga For Everybody

Downward, dogs! Originally spotted on Facebook.

Ask ten different people why they maintain a yoga practice, and you just might get ten different answers. Given that the generic term “yoga” refers to an interconnected bundle of physical, mental, and spiritual disciplines, this makes perfect sense: everyone comes to yoga seeking different things, and there is no universal agreement on what a yoga practice “should” be. Of course, these flexible boundaries also leave room for plenty of heated, contentious debate about who is “doing it wrong,” and if you’re interested in that sort of squabble, you can learn more here and here.

If, however, you’d rather learn a little bit more about what the library has to offer on the subject, read on. There’s something in the stacks for everybody, from the long-time practitioner to the yoga-curious bystander, so even if you’re just trying to understand why anybody would want to twist their bodies into different shapes, you’ll find something in our collection. As ever, we strongly suggest you talk to a doctor first if you have any questions about how something you read might apply to your specific situation.

Asana Sampler:

We carry a pretty extensive collection of active practice books and DVDs, so consider treating yourself to a day at the library to examine the books firsthand. They are fairly popular, though, so a follow-up catalog search, by subject or keyword , can ensure you don’t miss anything. You can always consult one of our pre-made resource lists, or ask a librarian. Some of the more interesting titles I found during my own catalog search include:

The No-Om Zone: A No-Chanting, No-Granola, No-Sanskrit Practical Guide to Yoga, Kimberly Fowler. Some people avoid yoga because they think it’s “too weird” or maybe just a step further outside of their comfort zone than they’re ready to go. Fowler, who felt the same way about yoga at first, has written a book designed to allay those fears. You could call it “Yoga for Skeptics,” but beginners should take note: this book is designed for people who are already in pretty good shape from other types of workouts/sports.

Big Yoga: A Simple Guide for Bigger Bodies, Meera Patricia Kerr. Beauty and health come in all sizes, and so does yoga practice in this introductory volume.  Kerr, who describes herself as “beefy, athletic and loud,” models a variety of adaptive poses and provides a solid introduction to yoga practice in a positive, encouraging way. Includes many photographs of people who look like actual people, having a good time working out.

Yoga for Computer Users: Healthy Necks, Shoulders, Wrists, and Hands in the Postmodern Age, Sandy Blaine. Stuck at a desk all day? Blaine’s book offers a series of poses you can do at your desk without getting funny looks–or at least, no funnier than usual–from your officemates. There’s even a longer practice sequence, designed to be done sometime after you’re off the clock, for people who routinely spend their days at a computer. The primary focus is on making stretching, mindfulness, and calm a part of your normal routine, instead of trying to shoehorn it in on top of everything else. Great for the time-pressed (and, honestly, who isn’t?).

Real Men Do Yoga, John Capouya. Designed to reassure you that you will not lose your man card if you take a class with your sweetie,  Capouya’s book focuses on how yoga can be just one part of a well-rounded fitness program, and can even enhance performance by adding flexibility to the mix. Packed with commentary from professional athletes and regular joes alike, this volume focuses on the physical and mental branches of yoga, but leaves space for those who want to learn more to probe into the philosophy as well. Covers a variety of fitness levels.

Yoga Philosophy 101

Interested in the spiritual beliefs behind the physical postures?  Start here:

Yoga: The Greater Tradition, David Frawley

Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Patanjali (various translations available)

Pathways to Joy, Swami Vivakanenda


Still not ready to step on a mat yourself? Pick up one of these memoirs to see what others have gained from their practice.

Will Yoga and Meditation Really Change My Life?: Personal Stories from 25 of North America’s Leading Teachers, ed. Stephen Cope

Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Poses, Claire Dederer

Yoga Bitch: One Woman’s Quest to Conquer Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cigarettes on the Path to Enlightenment , Suzanne Morrison

Stretch: The Unlikely Making of a Yoga Dude, Neal Pollack

Research for Skeptics

Never going to do it, but still intellectually curious about it? Call these picks, “evidence-based yoga.”

The Science of Yoga, William J. Broad

American Veda: From Emerson and the Beatles to Yoga and Meditation: How Indian Spirituality Changed the West, Philip Goldberg

The Great Oom: The Improbable Birth of Yoga in America, Robert Love

The Subtle Body: The Story of Yoga in America, Stefanie Syman

Whether your explanations lead you to the process of choosing a teacher/studio, a satisfying private yoga practice, or simply more knowledge than you had before you started investigating, I hope the process brings you joy. I started my own yoga practice with a library book, and am currently sampling the wonderful variety of classes, teachers and studios Pittsburgh has to offer. For those of you currently practicing, can you recommend a book, teacher, studio or type of yoga for your fellow readers to playtest?

–Leigh Anne


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Of Stage, Page, and Other Doorways: Les Misérables

A friend who works at CLP East Liberty is rereading all of Victor Hugo’s novels this year. Her praise for Julie Rose’s 2008 translation of Les Misérables moved me to track down a copy, and it is a formidable translation indeed:  1300 pages, and thicker than bricks.

A book that size demands your complete attention. You can’t really read it comfortably at the dinner table, or on the bus (at least, not if the seat next to you is occupied).  Oh no:  the size and heft, as well as the small font that delivers the content, demand your undistracted gaze, from the first lines of the introduction to the final footnote.

On the bright side, walking around with 1300 pages of French literature tucked under your arm is, apparently, better than a firearm when it comes to warding off unwanted attention; I’m not sure if people worry I’ll hit them with it or start quoting from it, but either way, all but the most literarily obsessed give a wide berth when Julie Rose and I walk by.  Especially if my nose is buried in the text, and I’m not looking where I’m going.

Why reread a classic when there are so many new and exciting works of literature waiting to be devoured?  I’d like to be able to say that, like our intern Shannon, I have a penchant for serious books.  The truth of the matter, though, is that Hugo bored me to tears when I was fifteen, reading him for the first time in French class (sorry Madame Soubre – il n étais pas votre faute).  I didn’t fall in love with Les Misérables until my college chamber choir tackled excerpts from Boublil and Schönberg’s musical score ; one rehearsal of “The Confrontation” and I fled for the library to take another stab at what I had so clearly missed in the novel the first time.

Ideally, textual interpretations feed into each other.  Music can lead you to books, perhaps by way of a graphic novel detour.  While the experience of reading a text is very different from watching a film, say, or listening to an audiobook narrated by Orson Welles (mmmm), the ideas themselves do not change.  Though the packaging may alter to accommodate different learning styles, the substance of Hugo’s moral and philosophical inquiries remains constant.

And what grand concerns they are.  As Jean Valjean struggles to overcome his criminal past, he is confronted at every turn with issues that are as troubling to a twenty-first century American as they might have been to a nineteenth-century French citizen.  What is social justice?  Is the ultimate goal of law to punish or rehabilitate?  What can / should be done to ameliorate class warfare?  What do we mean when we speak of ethics, honor, patriotism, faith, love?  And, perhaps most importantly, is there an absolute morality, as represented by Inspector Javert?  Or can we be redeemed by grace and mercy, as embodied by the Bishop of Digne?

I suppose the Javerts of the literary world might take me to task for coming to the book in a roundabout fashion, instead of appreciating it for what it was from the start.  As for me, I prefer the idea that there are many doorways into a text, and that it is no insult to the great books if we are not ready for them just yet.  They will remain, quietly shining on the shelves in their greatness, waiting patiently for us to stumble across the path, or through the doorway, that will ultimately lead us to the eternal lessons they have to teach.

Leigh Anne
(who would like to thank her teachers for not giving up on her during her “sit in the back of the class reading Stephen King” phase)


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Cloud-Hidden: Alan Watts

Alan Watts was and remains, nearly 40 years after his death, one of the most enigmatic, influential figures of the 20th century.  Revered as well as reviled, Watts, along with D. T. Suzuki, was largely responsible for the re-introduction of Eastern philosophy and wisdom to the West in the 1950s and 60s.

The influence of the East on the various counterculture movements of the 60s cannot be overestimated.   The confluence of East and West, evinced in the Peace, Black Power, and Women’s Movements, changed how we perceive our selves, our culture, and our world. 

Alan Watts played no small part in these changes.

Many people were first introduced to Watts via a series of radio programs, originally broadcast late at night on rock radio stations that were playing their part in the larger cultural revolution.  In recent years, these same programs have begun to be transcribed into book form and have rekindled interest in the philosophy and ways of Alan Watts.

Many found their way East via Watts’ lectures and books on Zen Buddhism,  particularly the book on Zen and its relevance to Beat Literature.   

One book that I have recommended innumerable times to friends and customers alike is The Book: The Taboo Against Knowing Who You AreCertainly a product of its time, The Book still speaks loud and clear to those with open hearts and open minds. 

Besides these particular titles, a number of others worth looking into include:

~ Behold the spirit; a study in the necessity of mystical religion

~ Nature, man, and woman

~ The Way of Zen

~ What is Tao

In addition, there are other books by Watts that are currently either out of print or not available through our local system: This Is It and Other Essays on Zen and Spiritual Experience;  Does It Matter?: Essays on Man’s Relation to Materiality; Cloud-Hidden, Whereabouts Unknown: A Mountain Journal; Psychotherapy East and West; The Joyous Cosmology; and  Beyond Theology.  All these titles are readily available at libraries outside our system and may be obtained through interlibrary loan.

Don’t know what interlibrary loan is?  Well, here’s a FAQ that will tell you all about it.

The full list of locally available titles by Watts, including the audio transcripts, may be found here.

Finally, if you’d like to hear some samples of Watts’ lectures, his melodious voice and abundant humor, the Alan Watts homepage has provided some audio to tantalize your curiosity.

– Don

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Inglourious Basterds

Enough time has passed by now that I shouldn’t be ruining the storyline to Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s dual-purpose war movie.  While giving a sidelong glance at the “Final Solution” through the lens of improbable kitsch, the movie also pays homage — on several levels — to Hollywood types and genres.  The frequently-recited premise of the film is that it’s about a group of behind-the-lines Jewish GIs (led by part Apache, part good-old-boy Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raines) exacting murderous revenge on the Germans.  Before its release there was even a hint of the film being based on factual events.

First and foremost, this is a Tarantino film:  think Kill Bill (either one) without the leggy blonde, or Pulp Fiction without the Ezekiel-quoting Samuel L. Jackson character (my personal favorite). Just so you can suspend disbelief a little more than you otherwise might, the story is supposed to bring together the Fuhrer, his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, and a host of other prominent Nazis at a film premiere in a Paris cinema, where they could be killed by Pitt and his Kosher Commandos.  The theater itself is owned and operated by a young Jewish woman — Shosanna Dreyfus — who escaped being murdered with the rest of her family underneath a French farmhouse in the film’s opening chapter.  In the tradition of  Lee Marvin’sC’mon, Jiminez, move it!“, this film’s tagline would be S.S. Colonel Hans Landa’s breezy “Au revoir, Shosanna” as she runs from the farmhouse where her family had been hiding (Landa is a special kind of guy).

When asked what I thought of the film, I had two responses:  one very shallow and reflexive, the other a little more subjective and thoughtful.  Reflexively I liked it, despite my objections to characterizations and historical accuracy — a little knowledge can be dangerous.  It was entertaining, and I have to admit it appealed (for all the wrong reasons) to my own immature and and sometimes unsophisticated emotional requirements.  I happen to like Tarentino films and this one had the added bonus of severe whoop-ass on Nazis, Brad Pitt tripping on his overdone backwoods accent, and a skinning knife the size of Montana.

So that’s the dollar review.  Over time, other thoughts and meanings became clearer.  There’s the obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1967 masterpiece, The Dirty Dozen — obvious to me, anyway; maybe it’s a Boomer thing.  Some of the parallels jump right out, while others are more subtle.  Both groups are deep behind enemy lines, and rely on enemy uniforms in the tried and true “you will be shot as spies if caught” formula to prolong tension.  Raines’s Jews aren’t misfits in the way the Dozen are, but they might be more certifiably psychotic because they’re so otherwise normal.  Would I rather share a taxi with Eli Roth’s “Bear Jew” (whacks Nazis to death with a bat on command) or Clint Walker’s oversized Dozen character, Sampson Posey?  At least Posey killed his victim in a bar fight by accident, without malice.  Having said that, Tarrantino’s Basterds dont have a Maggot  (Telly Savalas’s scripture-quoting social outcast) to make you appreciate how normal the rest of us are.

If a movie can inspire a degree of serious thought, then this one did bring out an unhappy or unpleasant one:  the primacy of and/or fascination with evil.  When I left the theater I started thinking back to Schindler’s List, which is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel (originally titled Schindler’s Ark).

You might be asking yourself why I’d think that — the two movies are like night and day in their premise and execution, and one is pure fantasy.  But here’s the thing:  I hardly remember Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler or the Yitzhak Stern character played by Ben Kingsley. In Schindler I was consumed by the malevolent, extroverted charm of Capt. Amon Goeth, as performed by Ralph Fiennes. In Basterds, Tarantino’s Landa affected me the same way. Whether historic (Goeth) or fictional (Landa), evil draws us in.


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