22 September, 2023

Four Books I Read This Summer

Buddhism boasts a larger body of writings than any other belief system. Practitioners, of course, regard certain texts as more essential than others, and in Zen (called Ch'an in some other parts of the world), the most venerated of these are arguably the Prajna-Paramita Sutra, the Record Of The Transmission Of The Lamp, the Altar Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, and Master Dogen's Shobogenzo. The Diamond Sutra represents a small section of the very long Prajna-Paramita Sutra, from which the renowned Heart Sutra also comes.

The translation of the Diamond Sutra that I read back in July is by Venerable Cheng Kuan, a Taiwanese monk ordained in Japan, who's lectured and taught in both America and Taiwan. His bio says he has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, which makes it all the more puzzling that he would render this already challenging text the way that he has. Venerable Kuan chose to invent his own terms that he believes approximate those for which no direct English equivalents exist. It doesn't make for easy comprehension. Where most translators would use a term such as "sentient beings" to refer to all life forms, Venerable Kuan goes with the unusual, inexplicably capitalized "Mutibeings." Where other translators leave the title "Tathagatha" (one of the Buddha's ten epithets, meaning "one who has thus come" or "thus-comer") as-is, Venerable Kuan dubs the Buddha the "Thus-Adventist," a term I've never seen or heard used before. It's just weird. The frequency with which Venerable Kuan does this kind of thing makes reading his odd translation of the Diamond Sutra somewhat difficult. I'll have to give this one another go later, with a different translator's rendering.

Using more natural language but focusing on a similarly incomprehensible premise is The Shapeless Unease, a delirious, haunting, beautiful memoir by Samantha Harvey. The book covers a yearlong period during which Harvey suffered crippling insomnia. You could call her experience a nightmare if that word didn't land too painfully far from the truth. This book is a wonder. The author's literary product is no mere procedural, that follows her means and methods of seeking relief. In another writer's hands, this might've ended up a blandly straightforward account of not being able to sleep and getting increasingly frustrated with that fact. Instead, Harvey brings a discursive, poetic flair to the matter, making this memoir a must-read.

From Act II, Scene Seven, of As You Like It come the famous lines

All the world's a stage And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts

We know them even if we're not well versed in the Bard's work, and many of us recognize that even in Shakespeare's time the idea of humankind as a great acting troupe wasn't particularly original Ol' Billy just said it prettily. Until the mid-1950s, however, no one seems to have ventured a systematic look at selfhood through this particular lens. Enter Dr. Erving Goffman, stage right, wearing a perfectly nice bowtie, to deliver his monograph The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, the third book I read this season.

Goffman's sociology text takes the metaphor made so famous by Shakespeare's play to its logical extreme, positing that, in what he calls "Anglo-American society," selfhood is an imputed image based on a character played within a given field of action a result of a given situation, not the cause of it. He goes into great and often amusing detail to illustrate the point, citing studies, anecdotal evidence, and historical precedent. I liked how closely Goffman's conceptual framework aligns with the Buddhist idea that inherent selfhood is an illusion. I found a lot to appreciate about Goffman's study, in fact, and read much of the book with a knowing smirk intended for an audience of myself alone.

I wonder for whom I was performing when I agreed to partake in another round with the prison's book club. Our previous book was a short story collection by local writer (and super nice guy) Ron A. Austin. This time we went big, tackling the Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Not only did I read this version once before, about ten years ago, I also tried to read the not-especially good Constance Garnett translation a couple of years before that. After that initial reading, this translation became my favorite work of Russian literature more unruly than Tolstoy's tedious Anna Karenina, more soul-stirring than Solzhenitsyn's harrowing One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
Considering how busy I am, reading a dense 800-page novel and going to biweekly meetings to discuss it may seem foolhardy. It's too much fun to say no to, though. Our book club is a collaborative project between Saint Louis University and XSTREAM Media. SLU's Prison Education Program supplies the books, and XSTREAM broadcasts every meeting on TV, in an effort to generate more interest in reading. The University sent a professor to lead the club meetings for The Brothers Karamazov, which made for an even richer experience that I was happy to be a part of. Our often lively discussions made decent television, too.

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