In the first of the past two weeks, I was trying to finish the books that I’d borrowed from my college library, but it ended up that I was only able to read less than half of The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant before I had to return all the books this past Saturday, when I returned to Charlottesville to attend my friend’s wedding. After returning those books, it occurred to me that I had finally cut off my last physical connections with UVa. I will miss you, Alderman and Clemons. Your memory will forever be in my heart 😛
On Tuesday, my brother had to return his UNC summer reading The Shallows (of which I wrote in my last post). He hadn’t even finished it, but he said he would just buy it at UNC when he attends orientation. I went to the library with him to look for books to read. Even though I was disappointed by the lack of academic-quality books in the small public library, I ended up spending an hour there and borrowed seven non-fiction books, most of them in a style similar to that of The Shallows. So far, I have only finished reading a small book by Ann Patchett called What now? But I also started reading another book: The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future (Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30) by Mark Bauerlein. I will talk a little about these two books (and a little bit about The Story of Philosophy at the end).
Maybe I’ll talk about The Dumbest Generation first. As I said, I haven’t finished the book. I’m on Chapter 3. However, it’s so repetitive that I don’t feel like wasting my time continuing. All of what he said could essentially be reduced to one sentence: Despite the advancement of technology and other material things, the young generation doesn’t read, only cares about friends, and is dumb. However, instead of saying that, Bauerlein wrote pages and pages of what seem to be simply an assortment of research results and statistics that goes on and on and on and on.
I borrowed the book because reading The Shallows sparked my interest in this topic, and also because I saw that the author is an English professor at Emory. However, the writing style is no different from ordinary journalistic style (except that he also throws in some occasional hard words like fulgent), and the content is not very illuminating. If The Shallows is about the cause of a disease, then The Dumbest Generation only enumerates the symptoms of this disease, and I think most of us know the symptoms already (especially the people that would pick up this book in the first place). In addition, I don’t particularly like the tone of the author; it’s a little condescending. After all, Bauerlein himself apparently does not belong to the Dumbest Generation. (Another complaint: why so much focus on America? This is not just a problem for American young people, but all young people with access to the mentioned technologies).
Maybe I will change my view on this book if I finish it, and maybe I will finish it, but for now I’m moving on to a new wuxia novel (俠客行) as well as Sheena Iyengar’s The Art of Choosing.
Now on to the other book. I really like Ann Patchett’s What now? Even though it’s an expanded version of a commencement speech she gave at her alma mater and therefore a non-fictional essay, reading it, you could feel that it’s authored by a novelist. Basically, she talked about different stories from her own life around the time of college, and how they shaped her view on life. To be honest, I was a little relieved when I read that she worked as a cook for a year after graduation, then after getting her M.F.A., became a waitress at T.G.I. Friday’s for a few years. That’s exactly what I worry will happen to me. Yet, these situations helped her become the accomplished novelist that she is today.
But her situation is still a little different from mine: she already knew, and she knew all along, that she wanted to be a novelist. But me? I have no idea… I’m just going with the flow! OK, actually, I did have a dream. I wanted to go to graduate school for Philosophy, then get a PhD in Islamic Studies, then become a scholar and write books. However, I gave up that dream the last semester of my 4th year because I realized I wasn’t cut out for academia. To be honest, I don’t want to give up so easily, but what can I do? I’m too afraid to try (because I’m afraid of failure, i.e. the moment when I realize that no graduate school will accept me…).
But I don’t want to just give it up completely either, so here is my plan (insha’Allah): I will find whatever work I can find, then I’ll study philosophy and religion on the side. I just hope that I will persevere in my pursuit of truth and not lose myself to the rat race like everyone else. I say this because I am already feeling my passion for truth subsiding and being replaced by a worldly concern for wealth. This feeling reminds me of these verses from the Qur’an:
“And indeed he is, in love of wealth, intense.” (100:8)
“Competition in [worldly] increase diverts you
Until you visit the graveyards.” (102:1-2)
I must not let myself lose to the “glittering show” of this material world. Even as I seek subsistence in this world, I must not lose my faith! “Our Lord, let not our hearts deviate after You have guided us and grant us from Yourself mercy. Indeed, You are the Bestower.” (3:8)
Well, this ended up being about myself rather than about Ann Patchett’s book. But reading personal stories tends to invoke reflections on my own life. Anyway, I think it’s a good essay because it reduced my anxiety a little, and that is really the effect that I was seeking when I borrowed this book. The next time I am faced with the question What now? I will be reminded of Patchett’s advice and think of it as an opportunity, not something to be stressed about. In fact, we are constantly asking “What now?” so we might as well live with it and be forever open and spontaneous.
By the way, the good thing about being a Muslim is that no matter what mistake you think you commit in life, as long as you return to God, you know that you are on the right Path. That is, even if I incorrectly answer the question What now? by choosing a career that does not suit me or by making a decision that leads me to unemployment or something like that (bad answers indeed from a materialistic perspective), as long as I worship Allah, I know that I am living the purpose of my life 😀
OK. This “review” (?) has turned yet again into remarks on Islam, but I think that is because reflections are inseparably linked with spirituality. Maybe that’s why all the great philosophers believed in God, as demonstrated in The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant. I only read the chapters on Plato (and Socrates), Aristotle, Francis Bacon, and Spinoza. Actually, most of it was a rereading for me, because I borrowed it once a year ago and read the first couple of chapters. I would say that it’s a good book for people who are not familiar with the history of philosophy or who are interested in the biographies of the major philosophers in history. Durant’s writing style is a bit old-fashioned and full of colorful metaphors, which at times deterred the fluidity of my reading, but Durant is a very good storyteller and summarizes well the lifeworks of these great philosophers. I hope that I will finish it one day insha’Allah. Finally, many thoughts came into my head as I was reading this book, but I have forgotten most of them. My last thought was how much Spinoza’s philosophy is similar to Sufi philosophy. As for how, I have forgotten… But I will certainly return to it insha’Allah.
Postscript: While looking up for a picture to represent “greed” and “love of wealth”, I saw a photo of the burning World Trade Center with a caption that says: “Greed: because all the wonders of life can’t add up to 72 virgins” and thought the whole incident very ironic and sad. The 72 virgin story has no basis in Islam and no Muslim knew about it until anti-islamic groups started their propaganda after 9/11. It’s just so sad and ridiculous that the public believes everything the media tells them. I admit with shame that I was one of these credulous people just 3 years ago. I believed the 72 virgin story and even watched comedy shows mocking Islam and Muslims (I think it was “Achmed” the terrorist or something like that). It made me feel like I belonged to the majority, the “mainstream”. Now I see how ignorant and stupid I was. Please, research any information thoroughly before you use it to hate or propagate hate on somebody or some religion. Please try to value the truth of the matter more than anything else.