Berger’s readers will see with fresh eyes.

A deceptively brief volume offers profound meditations on art, the creative process and so much more.

Berger has long been difficult to categorize—philosopher? art critic? essayist? novelist?—and his latest defies pigeon-holing even by the standards of this British-born writer who has long lived in France. Let’s start with the title, which alludes to a long-rumored but never-found sketchbook by the philosopher Spinoza, to whom Berger refers affectionately as “Bento” (the nickname for Benedict) and whom he excerpts liberally. In fact, dozens of passages from Spinoza’s Ethics, accompanied by drawings from Berger (perhaps channeling Spinoza) and others might give this the appearance of an illustrated abridgement of that work. Yet Spinoza is more of a springboard, as Berger delves deeply into the processes of making and responding to art, of thinking and being, of narrative and history, of the essence of humanity. Taking inspiration from the possibility of a Spinoza sketchbook, the author “began to make drawings prompted by something asking to be drawn.” In the process, he began to focus on what he drew and why he drew, connecting the creation of art to everything from philosophy to politics to religion. Each of the prose pieces—some as short as a paragraph, few longer than a couple of pages—is self-contained, yet this volume isn’t exactly a collection of essays, for none are titled and all are thematically interconnected as well. Whether he’s extending an analogy that compares making a drawing to riding a motorbike or discusses storytelling in a manner that could apply just as well to drawing (“In following a story, we follow a storyteller, or, more precisely, we follow the trajectory of a storyteller’s attention, what it notices and what it ignores…”), he makes such interaction and interconnection seem central to the human condition.

Berger’s readers will see with fresh eyes.

Pub Date: Nov. 8, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-307-37995-5

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: July 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2011



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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