2015 Book Reviews

‘Wildwood, a Journey through Trees’ by Roger Deakin – October 2014

“In ‘Wildwood, a journey through trees’, (our October book) personal memories jostled with historical anecdotes and accounts of meetings with modern wood-workers; dwellers or landscapes. Partly presented as a highly personal and sometimes autobiographical nature journal, in it Roger Deakin moves the reader through numerous wooded landscapes. He attempts at all times to describe the great satisfaction he derives from observing the natural world; how it works; how man interacts and manipulates this material- be it living or felled wood. There is a deep sense of the interconnectedness of all living things and a delight in knowing that one piece of knowledge leads to another and another.

As rich and varied as the book is though, some of us found it too intense, almost blinkered in its narrow focus in some chapters. It does presuppose a detailed knowledge or interest in some very complex and specialized ecosystems. The structure is occasionally challenging, as the narrative is not linear: autobiographical details are not in sequence for instance. Personally, I enjoyed that aspect, as it made it seem as rich and varied as the ancient forests we were being invited to explore. Overall, we were pleased to have had a chance to see the world of trees through the eyes of a polymath enthusiast, with an unquenchable appetite for knowledge and a passion for environmental issues.”

 

‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ by Robert Pirsig – November 2014

“From a man in ‘Wildwoods’ generally at peace with his environment, if not always with what his fellow man is doing to it, we came next in ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’, by Robert Pirsig, to a highly intelligent but troubled soul, trying to explain the metaphysical concept of quality, a task which had already driven him once into madness. We had all heard of this iconic title, but most of us were surprised at the content. The finer points of the philosophical discussions were beyond some of us, although the comments on the nature of quality were felt to be valid for as long as they were presented with clarity. However, as the narrative becomes a descent into madness, brought on by a frustration at the apparent inability of anyone else to connect with his understanding of ‘quality’, the arguments become harder to follow.

We all agreed that the book can be read on many different levels, and there was a certain amount of disagreement about the ultimate message. At its simplest level, the book is an encouragement not to ignore things we don’t understand, especially with regard to mechanical or technological items whose complexity can make us feel disconnected. Practical ability to repair a machine, practiced mindfully, can restore peace to the human mind. It is also a historical discussion of complex philosophical ideas, of its time in the 1970s.Personally,  I related most to it as the story of a man and in his son, on a journey, struggling to make meaningful connections to each other, both struggling with a family history deeply scarred by insanity. What I think we did agree on was the book ending somehow with a sense of loss, of unresolved outcomes, either in the discussion on ‘quality’ or in the future for the narrator and his family.

It’s a captivating book- I couldn’t put it down. All the way through, this gentle intellectual giant drives himself without respite to make clear his arguments. And as his reader, I was desperate for him to succeed, to understand him, as if I could then save him from insanity, simply by being less stupid. It’s quite a narrative feat. “