Three philosophical novels: Goldstein, Sloan, and Barbery

Three of the novels that I read this summer are explicitly or implicitly built on philosophical themes:

  • Rebecca Goldstein’s 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A work of fiction. With a title like that, you can see why a subtitle was needed.
  • Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. With a title like that, you would probably think that it’s a children’s book. You would be wrong.
  • Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. With a title, you might think that it’s a non-fiction book about animals. You would be wrong there too.

All three works are novels, all for adults. Don’t be deceived by the titles.

All three of these novels are worth reading, though I’m not sure that there’s a substantial overlap in the appropriate audiences. Let’s take them one at a time, in the order listed, since that happens to be the order in which I read them.

Rebecca Goldstein is well-known as a philosopher and a novelist. (I will refrain from saying that she is also well-known as the wife of Steven Pinker.) Despite the title of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, both the author and her protagonist are prominent humanists, a.k.a. atheists, albeit Jewish atheists. (Part of the complication of deciding whether Judaism is a religion or a combination of culture and ethnicity is the very existence of Jewish atheists.) In some ways this is a traditional academic novel, focusing on a professor at Brandeis (not so subtly fictionalized as Frankfurter) who is offered a tenured position at Harvard (not fictionalized at all). It is filled with academic politics — fascinating to those of us who are fascinated by such things — and effectively satirizes universities, professors, and graduate students. There is a sub-theme involving Hasidism and another involving mathematical prodigies; throughout the book the two sub-themes are intertwined with each other and with the major themes. A lengthy appendix cites and rebuts the 36 arguments of the title, where the voice of the rebutter is the protagonist but clearly he is speaking for the author as well. Don’t expect a light summer read! But if this sounds like your cup of tea, do read it and enjoy it. I did.

Then we get to Robin SloanMr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore really is something close to a light summer read. Close, but a bit too deep for that. It’s an amusing novel, but a serious one. Here’s what the author says:

I wrote this book because it’s the one I wanted to read, and I tried to pack it full of the things I love: books and bookstores; design and typography; Silicon Valley and San Francisco; fantasy and science fiction; quests and projects. If you love those things too, I hope and believe you will enjoy a visit to the tall skinny bookstore next to the strip club.

Indeed it’s packed full of all those things. Old books, cryptography, D&D, programming languages, fonts… what’s not to love? (It’s a bit too pro-Google, but there are worse sins than that.)

You may wonder where the philosophy comes in. In contrast to Goldstein’s book, the questions here revolve around the roles of books and technology in our lives, the nature of reality, the nature of representations, and the dialectic between the old and the new. Although the focus is not particularly on programming languages, I couldn’t resist the following excerpt:

Mr. Penumbra on Ruby

Finally, we come to Muriel Barbery’s book, translated from the French by Alison Anderson, with an original title of L’élégance du hérisson. I could have tried the original, but my French is a little rusty and I didn’t really want to invest the extra time that would be needed. I was also commuting two hours a day on the T and wanted to listen to the audiobook version; for French I need to see it in print. Now that I’m writing this review, however, I’ve been inspired to reserve the French original from the library. So we’ll see…

Barbery — like Goldstein — is both a philosopher and a novelist. Her novel is deeply immersed in philosophy from phenomenology to sociopolitics to aesthetics. There are two first-person protagonists, distinguished in the print version by font choice, so I wondered how this would be handled in the audiobook. The solution was simplicity itself: different narrators. That worked fine, but the narrator for the younger protagonist (Cassandra Morris, I believe) made her sound arrogant and pretentious. I don’t believe that this was the author’s intent, even if we’re talking about a 12-year-old genius. I’ll let you know after I try the French version, reading it instead of listening to it. Regardless of that issue, I found The Elegance of the Hedgehog fascinating and captivating. Of the three books I’m writing about in this post, this one is by far the most explicit about its philosophical underpinnings; nevertheless it is primarily dominated by character and plot in my humble opinion. The two protagonists are both surprises as philosophers: the one because she’s 12 years ago, the other because she is supposedly working class and therefore “shouldn’t” be an intellectual (this is France, remember). The real mystery is how this novel could possibly have been a best-seller in France for 102 weeks in a row! That couldn’t happen here.

But maybe it could. Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, after all, was a best-seller, and it was far less accessible than The Elegance of the Hedgehog. There are many people, of course, who buy books by Eco and Hawking without having a prayer of understanding them, so I suppose it could happen to Barbery as well. In any case, there’s nothing impenetrable about The Elegance of the Hedgehog, so don’t hesitate to read it. Read 36 Arguments for the Existence of God and Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore as well, while you’re at it. As Monk would say, you’ll thank me later.

Categories: Books