A demanding, illusion-shattering book certain to receive criticism from both the scientific and the religious camps.

WAKING UP

A GUIDE TO SPIRITUALITY WITHOUT RELIGION

Another challenging work from the founder of Project Reason, this time an attempt to separate spirituality from religion.

Neuroscientist Harris (Lying, 2013, etc.) argues that the conventional sense of self—a feeling that there is an “I,” a center of consciousness sitting somewhere behind the eyes—is false and that spirituality consists largely of ridding oneself of this illusion. The author recognizes that the term “spirituality” comes with loaded meanings, but here he uses it to refer to the transcendence of self. Early on, Harris describes his book as “a seeker’s memoir, an introduction to the brain, a manual of contemplative instruction, and a philosophical unraveling of what most people consider to be the center of their inner lives: the sense of self we call ‘I’…my goal is to pluck the diamond from the dunghill of esoteric religion.” The author’s many narrative strands intertwine throughout the book. The memoir portions tell of his explorations into Eastern meditation practices and of his experiences with psychedelic drugs. His how-to-meditate directions are simple and straightforward (for further guidance, readers are directed to his website), and his experiments with consciousness-altering drugs are both revealing and startling. Most challenging are the chapters on the brain and the nature of consciousness. Since the author is primarily a philosopher and a scientist, not a lifestyle counselor, readers expecting a user-friendly how-to manual on becoming more spiritual will no doubt be perplexed and disappointed, but they will come away having been warned about unethical gurus and bad drugs. Only the chapter on near-death experiences, which deftly slices and dices Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife (2012), is out of place, reading rather like a book review that Harris has been seeking to get published.

A demanding, illusion-shattering book certain to receive criticism from both the scientific and the religious camps.

Pub Date: Sept. 9, 2014

ISBN: 978-1451636017

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2014

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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