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Book Recommendations

A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes [by Witold Gombrowicz]

Raphael School of AthensWho hasn’t wished for a painless way to find out what the big shots of philosophy – the Hegels and Kants, the Nietzsches and Sartres – thought of the human condition? It has never made for easy reading, the pondering of such formidable thinkers, and most explainers and textbooks tend either to get things wrong or to massacre the language.

Still, the reader aproaching Kant or Hegel needs help, and when it comes from someone with a sense of humor and a refusal to be boring, my heart leaps up.

So it did when I opened Witold Gombrowicz’s Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes (trans. Benjamin Ivry; Yale University Press), an exceptional effort at summarizing concepts in bold, declarative sentences. Descartes had one important idea, “absolute doubt.” Kierkegaard had grown up on Hegel’s philosophy, then suddenly “declared war on him, in one of culture’s most dramatic moments.”

Gombrowicz (1904-1969), arguably Poland’s greatest modern novelist, took Schopenhauer's pessimism in stride. Schopenauer's "is a grandiose and tragic vision which, unfortunately, coincides perfectly with reality." 

Gombrowicz writes with a comic wit that made him persona non grata in his Soviet-controlled homeland. He spent his last years lecturing in Paris. A Guide to Philosophy in Six Hours and Fifteen Minutes, which he was working on when he died, is like the course in philosophy you wish you had taken in your junior year.

-- DL (2004). Reading the book rekindled my fascination with Schopenhauer and inspired me to write my poem "The Will to Live," which went on to win the Laurence Goldstein Award from the Michigan Quarterly Review. Pictured above: Raphael's "School of Athens."  

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Best American Poetry Web ad3
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"Lively and affectionate" Publishers Weekly


I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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