White’s (On Being Human, 2013) nonfiction work asks how people can make sense of their lives as wholes in a world in which compartmentalization is the order of the day.
The main claim of this smart, sensitive look at the most significant human behaviors is fourfold but unified. In order to forge a valuable, rich existence, the author says, people should pay attention to works of art, scrutinize the scientific research of today and of ages past, gather what they can from the impulse that gives rise to religious traditions, and seek transformative experiences. These are heady prescriptions, but White ingeniously defends them and their effectiveness with an intelligence and sophistication not often found in the self-help genre. The book begins with a discussion of the value of art as a practice integrated into all of human life. He explores the centrality of metaphors and analogies not just to art, but to all human knowledge: people learn, he says, by comparing the known with the unknown. He then offers an adventurous interpretation of science and religion as branches of the pursuit of wisdom—a pursuit that’s often riddled with uncertainty. He looks at spirituality as a process, not as a fashionable accessory. The book is rich with quotations, from Francis Bacon and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to 20th-century scientists and philosophers, grounding its recommendations in careful, approachable readings of brilliant thinkers. It’s a masterful inquiry and proposal about how people ought to live that never comes off as pedantic or outlandish. In prose and playful dialogue between fictional characters, it urges readers to examine the most fundamental questions about what has value. In a striking thought experiment, for example, White asks readers to imagine members of a society that knows nothing about violins capturing a ship with a violin on it and studying it extensively, even “playing” it. What, he asks, makes something valuable for us—or good, desirable, or praiseworthy?
An eminently readable, dialogic, and philosophical discourse for readers seeking to genuinely transform themselves.