A stimulating intellectual interaction with lots of heart.

Two writers—one successful, the other still working on it—venture into the woods over the course of four days with one objective in mind: Argue so well that people will want to read about it.

Years ago, before traveling the world and teaching ESL, Powell was a scruffy kid with long hair and a mustache sitting in Shields' writing class, mulling over a life of letters. Flash forward to today, and the same intellectual writer has become a stay-at-home father, but one who still earnestly cultivates his art. The older man, meanwhile, has quietly spent the intervening years maintaining a steady, successful course in academia. So, which one has suffered and sacrificed more for the written word, and which one is the more successful human, effectively managing to keep himself directly involved in the flow of life? The answer to that question represents the heart of the writers’ multifaceted dialogue. Getting there, however, is just as interesting as the two men discuss everything from My Dinner with Andre to sports radio to George W. Bush. They also pepper their discussion with ruthless critiques of each other’s works. While the intellectual discourse is largely dispassionate, it never comes across as bloodless, with both men subtly revealing profound aspects of their souls during the course of their galloping discourse. Of course, they delve deeply into stuffy literary criticism, as well, but that's balanced by a deep sense of how each man feels about fatherhood, friendship, mortality and women. Powell, however, is clearly the engine behind the endeavor, driven in part by the enduring desire for both a mentor’s approval and his further instruction. He also reveals more about his past exploits, which include a harrowing life-and-death episode and an eye-opening adventure with two different amorous “transvestites,” on more than one occasion.

A stimulating intellectual interaction with lots of heart. 

Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-0385351942

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2014



This a book of earlier, philosophical essays concerned with the essential "absurdity" of life and the concept that- to overcome the strong tendency to suicide in every thoughtful man-one must accept life on its own terms with its values of revolt, liberty and passion. A dreary thesis- derived from and distorting the beliefs of the founders of existentialism, Jaspers, Heldegger and Kierkegaard, etc., the point of view seems peculiarly outmoded. It is based on the experience of war and the resistance, liberally laced with Andre Gide's excessive intellectualism. The younger existentialists such as Sartre and Camus, with their gift for the terse novel or intense drama, seem to have omitted from their philosophy all the deep religiosity which permeates the work of the great existentialist thinkers. This contributes to a basic lack of vitality in themselves, in these essays, and ten years after the war Camus seems unaware that the life force has healed old wounds... Largely for avant garde aesthetes and his special coterie.

Pub Date: Sept. 26, 1955

ISBN: 0679733736

Page Count: 228

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Sept. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 1955


A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

A teacher and scholar of Buddhism offers a formally varied account of the available rewards of solitude.

“As Mother Ayahuasca takes me in her arms, I realize that last night I vomited up my attachment to Buddhism. In passing out, I died. In coming to, I was, so to speak, reborn. I no longer have to fight these battles, I repeat to myself. I am no longer a combatant in the dharma wars. It feels as if the course of my life has shifted onto another vector, like a train shunted off its familiar track onto a new trajectory.” Readers of Batchelor’s previous books (Secular Buddhism: Imagining the Dharma in an Uncertain World, 2017, etc.) will recognize in this passage the culmination of his decadeslong shift away from the religious commitments of Buddhism toward an ecumenical and homegrown philosophy of life. Writing in a variety of modes—memoir, history, collage, essay, biography, and meditation instruction—the author doesn’t argue for his approach to solitude as much as offer it for contemplation. Essentially, Batchelor implies that if you read what Buddha said here and what Montaigne said there, and if you consider something the author has noticed, and if you reflect on your own experience, you have the possibility to improve the quality of your life. For introspective readers, it’s easy to hear in this approach a direct response to Pascal’s claim that “all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Batchelor wants to relieve us of this inability by offering his example of how to do just that. “Solitude is an art. Mental training is needed to refine and stabilize it,” he writes. “When you practice solitude, you dedicate yourself to the care of the soul.” Whatever a soul is, the author goes a long way toward soothing it.

A very welcome instance of philosophy that can help readers live a good life.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-300-25093-0

Page Count: 200

Publisher: Yale Univ.

Review Posted Online: Nov. 24, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2019

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