Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The Good Book by A. C. Grayling

Lowdown: A reference for living life according to humanist values.
With the exception of books I didn’t care to finish reading, the only book reviews I post here are of books I made through to the end. I am going to make an exception for A. C. Grayling’s The Good Book and post a review before getting to read it from start to finish. I am doing so for three reasons: first, this book is so long (~25,000 Kindle paragraphs, whatever they are) it will take me months to read it from start to finish, and there are too many good books out there I would like to read in the meantime. Second, by its very nature, The Good Book is a book that can be browsed and referenced rather than read from cover to cover. And third, The Good Book is an exceptional book that is well worth making exceptions for.
Want an exception to start with? The Good Book is a book I had bought twice. I bought the ebook first to read on my Kindle, and later – upon appreciating the treasure that it is – I bought the processed trees version so our household can nicely browse the book at our leisure.
With that introduction in mind, let us move on to discuss what The Good Book is all about. The Good Book assumes to provide a modern day version of the Bible that adheres to modern day values, in particular humanist and secular values. If the Bible formed some sort of a grotesque attempt to tell the people of the Bronze Age how to live their lives, filled with contradictions and pure nastiness all over, then The Good Book borrows the mission statement but does things right instead.
Different chapters deal with different subject matters, but as one can expect from A. C. Grayling the quality of discussion is both deep and thorough. For example, the chapter about friendship – its meaning and how to practice it – brought tears to my eyes through its detailed descriptions of how the give and take mechanisms of friendship should work (the tears, by the way, were the result of acknowledging just how lucky I am to have top notch friendships; in this age of shallow friendships via Facebook, this means something). Another relevance packed example is the chapter dealing with grief, which suggests ways of properly grieving those that are no longer with us but also instructs how to let go of them so that one can move on with one’s life. I was touched by this particular chapter because it confirmed my premonitions about certain family members of mine who simply fail to live their lives since the departure of a loved one more than a decade ago.
Discussions are often brought up through a story or a dialog, which brings into the picture another element The Good Book borrows from the Bible: style. Chapters are divided into verses, Bible style, and most notably the language tries to imitate that of the Bible (or, perhaps, that of old style manuscripts). This, by far, is my biggest problem with The Good Book: I understand and adore what it is trying to do, but why do we have to mimic the style of a book that may be said to be written by God but is definitely far off the standards of contemporary literature? Why does a book as good as The Good Book need to suffer so unnecessarily from readability problems? I would have much preferred it if A. C. Grayling was to deliver his message using contemporary language in a straight forward manner. True, if he were to do so then the resulting book would probably fail to stand out the way The Good Book does, but so what? I do not care for those marketing department type decisions; I want a good book to read, and sadly The Good Book, as good as it is, encumbers me heavily.
Still, let us not forget the beauty of The Good Book’s message. Or rather messages, because there are so many of them. Perhaps the best way for me to demonstrate the qualities of The Good Book are to quote directly from it. I will quote Grayling’s suggested Ten Commandments, as they appear at The Good Book’s conclusion:
  1. Love well
  2. Seek the good in all things
  3. Harm no others
  4. Think for yourself
  5. Take responsibility
  6. Respect nature
  7. Do your utmost
  8. Be informed
  9. Be kind
  10. Be courageous
A comparison with the original Ten Commandments makes me laugh bitterly. The original ones are full of shit (there is no point avoiding foul language; they are foul, and if you beg to differ then I urge you to actually read them here before condemning me). In comparison, The Good Book’s commandments are truly inspirational and clearly lead to better lived lives. Which is exactly what The Good Book is trying to help its readers achieve.
The Good Book is one of those books I would love to give away to friends and relatives, yet on the other hand I stand a good chance of appearing conceited for appearing to know better than others how to live one’s life.
Life, it is clear, isn’t perfect. Neither is The Good Book: on one hand it is the ultimate “self help” reference book; on the other it is too long and too stylish for its own good. I will rate it at 4 out of 5 stars, but add there is a significant standard deviation associated with this score.


Uri said...

It sounds interesting, but the bible style thing is very off-putting. I’d think he’d lose a lot of his target audience this way.

BTW, while many of the ten commandments are meaningless to us, that’s not really the problematic part of the bible, or religion for that matter. Don’t you think the world would be a better place if people were to honor their parents, avoid killing and stealing and bearing false testimony?

Moshe Reuveni said...

Yes, I think there is a bit too much pomp to the book.

As for the ten commandments, I agree. But...
For a start, no reasonably sane person needs to be told not to steal or kill; it's built in.
Second, much harm has been done because of the ten commandments: take "do not covet", for example. It is impossible not to covet, but very possible to covet and then think things up and realizing you'd probably be better off without that ox you want so much. We may discuss it philosophically, but people have died over these things.
Third, the ten commandments are incomplete. Take honoring thy parents: that's great, but what about the parents honoring their children? I would say it's just as important if not more important. A commandment such as that could, perhaps, have saved the world from the global warming disaster we are running towards. A commandment like that might have also meant that parents would stop mutilating their kids without giving their child a saying on the matter.

Moshe Reuveni said...

BTW, the big idea behind the novel I'm never going to write is to go through the commandments and show their shortcomings. My point is that through one reason or another, I actually invested quite a lot of thoughts on the matter.

Uri said...

No, it wouldn’t (that’s to your first comment).

Since people do steal, murder, lie, commit adultery (not to mention desecrating the Sabbath, having statues and engravings, etc.), there’s no reason to think a better set of commandments would make any difference.

Moshe Reuveni said...

You got a point, but I still think there is a difference. The difference is to do with intent: the original commandments were, well, commands; the ones suggested by Grayling are meant to inspire.
As I already mentioned, I think Grayling would have been better off not using biblical connotations on his inspirational points, but he never listens to me. (Actually, he did listen at the recent Global Atheist Convention; he took me by total surprise there.)