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BENTO'S SKETCHBOOK by John Berger Kirkus Star


by John Berger illustrated by John Berger

Pub Date: Nov. 8th, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-37995-5
Publisher: Pantheon

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.