Unlike The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and The Architecture of Happiness, this installment in the author’s oeuvre is...

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RELIGION FOR ATHEISTS

A NON-BELIEVER'S GUIDE TO THE USES OF RELIGION

De Botton (A Week at the Airport, 2010, etc.) suggests ways a secular society can provide the benefits and comfort its citizens once derived from faith.

The author’s central argument is credible: Religions “serve two central needs…which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill”—the need for community and the need for consolation in the face of life’s ills and evils. The devil is in the details, as de Botton cherry-picks isolated rituals from Catholicism, Judaism and Buddhism and proposes some not-very-persuasive modern equivalents (e.g., an Agape Restaurant designed to be “a secular descendant of the Eucharist” and a museum that offers spiritual guidance by organizing its artworks into subsets such as the Gallery of Self-knowledge and the Gallery of Compassion). Yes, the Jewish Day of Atonement provides an orderly format for acknowledging that we all injure others and all must learn to forgive. The idea that we can replace this timeworn practice with a billboard ad promoting Forgiveness in lieu of a sneaker brand is insulting to believers and atheists alike. When the author tosses off such comments as, “[o]ur artistic scene might benefit from greater collaborations between thinkers and makers of images, a marriage of best ideas with their highest expression,” he seems to have forgotten about the horrors wrought in service to that principle by Stalin and Hitler, to name only two political leaders who fancied they knew best what artists should say. The author displays a similar historical insouciance when he implies there has been no transcendent, spiritually nourishing architecture since the cathedrals, ignoring several centuries of train stations, libraries and government buildings expressing a monumental faith in civic culture that may languish today but was once a real force in public life.

Unlike The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work and The Architecture of Happiness, this installment in the author’s oeuvre is shallow and glib.

Pub Date: March 6, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-307-37910-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2011

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If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

THE 48 LAWS OF POWER

The authors have created a sort of anti-Book of Virtues in this encyclopedic compendium of the ways and means of power.

Everyone wants power and everyone is in a constant duplicitous game to gain more power at the expense of others, according to Greene, a screenwriter and former editor at Esquire (Elffers, a book packager, designed the volume, with its attractive marginalia). We live today as courtiers once did in royal courts: we must appear civil while attempting to crush all those around us. This power game can be played well or poorly, and in these 48 laws culled from the history and wisdom of the world’s greatest power players are the rules that must be followed to win. These laws boil down to being as ruthless, selfish, manipulative, and deceitful as possible. Each law, however, gets its own chapter: “Conceal Your Intentions,” “Always Say Less Than Necessary,” “Pose as a Friend, Work as a Spy,” and so on. Each chapter is conveniently broken down into sections on what happened to those who transgressed or observed the particular law, the key elements in this law, and ways to defensively reverse this law when it’s used against you. Quotations in the margins amplify the lesson being taught. While compelling in the way an auto accident might be, the book is simply nonsense. Rules often contradict each other. We are told, for instance, to “be conspicuous at all cost,” then told to “behave like others.” More seriously, Greene never really defines “power,” and he merely asserts, rather than offers evidence for, the Hobbesian world of all against all in which he insists we live. The world may be like this at times, but often it isn’t. To ask why this is so would be a far more useful project.

If the authors are serious, this is a silly, distasteful book. If they are not, it’s a brilliant satire.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 1998

ISBN: 0-670-88146-5

Page Count: 430

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 1998

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The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

THE ROAD TO CHARACTER

New York Times columnist Brooks (The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character and Achievement, 2011, etc.) returns with another volume that walks the thin line between self-help and cultural criticism.

Sandwiched between his introduction and conclusion are eight chapters that profile exemplars (Samuel Johnson and Michel de Montaigne are textual roommates) whose lives can, in Brooks’ view, show us the light. Given the author’s conservative bent in his column, readers may be surprised to discover that his cast includes some notable leftists, including Frances Perkins, Dorothy Day, and A. Philip Randolph. (Also included are Gens. Eisenhower and Marshall, Augustine, and George Eliot.) Throughout the book, Brooks’ pattern is fairly consistent: he sketches each individual’s life, highlighting struggles won and weaknesses overcome (or not), and extracts lessons for the rest of us. In general, he celebrates hard work, humility, self-effacement, and devotion to a true vocation. Early in his text, he adapts the “Adam I and Adam II” construction from the work of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, Adam I being the more external, career-driven human, Adam II the one who “wants to have a serene inner character.” At times, this veers near the Devil Bugs Bunny and Angel Bugs that sit on the cartoon character’s shoulders at critical moments. Brooks liberally seasons the narrative with many allusions to history, philosophy, and literature. Viktor Frankl, Edgar Allan Poe, Paul Tillich, William and Henry James, Matthew Arnold, Virginia Woolf—these are but a few who pop up. Although Brooks goes after the selfie generation, he does so in a fairly nuanced way, noting that it was really the World War II Greatest Generation who started the ball rolling. He is careful to emphasize that no one—even those he profiles—is anywhere near flawless.

The author’s sincere sermon—at times analytical, at times hortatory—remains a hopeful one.

Pub Date: April 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9325-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Feb. 16, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2015

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