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Why We (Should) Read Simon van Booy


Have you ever read a book on philosophy? They can be painful. More often than not, they attack deep issues and dense writing with the kind of surface treatment usually reserved for housekeeping services at a roadside motel. They attempt to distill entire works, philosophers, and even whole schools of thought, into a few pages’ worth of simplistic prose and half-baked analogies.

This is why Simon van Booy’s three volumes, Why We Fight, Why We Need Love, and Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter* are such a breath of fresh air. Although van Booy does admit that his aim is to make important philosophical questions palatable to the common reader with “straightforward, but intelligent, language that can be understood by everyone,” he avoids the temptation to water down the complexity of the works he has chosen to include in these books.

The beauty of van Booy’s approach is that rather than attempting to cover the whole of philosophy through the ages into a few hundred pages of over-simplified summaries, he instead dedicates each of his books to one big philosophical question. 

This is not to say that these volumes are small in scope. Quite the contrary. Their topics are enormous, and van Booy’s intelligence as an editor is most evident in the respect he shows to these big questions. At 211, 231, and 187 pages respectively, the Why… volumes are built to have a comprehensive look at some of the most enduring questions of human existence. 

In an effort to illuminate mysteries so elemental to human life, it would be tempting to pick a handful of thinkers, or a few particular schools of thought, that most closely corresponded to one’s own beliefs. Such an approach would certainly have a high probability of yielding a complete, compelling answer to the questions at hand, and it would in all likelihood provide readers with tidy conclusions to them. 

But van Booy does not restrict himself, his exploration, or his readers to any narrowly defined set of thinkers to tell us why we fight, why we need love, and why our decisions don’t matter. He draws from thinkers spanning human history and civilization, from ancient Eastern philosophers to contemporary American authors, and every time and place in between. 

What is most impressive about van Booy’s books, though, has less to do with from where and whom he chose to pull his material than how he chooses to present it to the reader. The editor spurns heavy-handedness; his books “are not meant to convince you of anything.” Rather, they are meant to encourage you to think, to ponder, to formulate new ideas and reformulate old ones.

In a nod to the discipline of philosophy as a whole, van Booy places far more weight on the process of grappling with these questions than the end of settling on definitive answers to them. Van Booy injects nothing more than a short quotation or a brief contextual explanation of the upcoming passage—so that all the heavy lifting is done by the source material and his readers’ own brains. He lets his sources speak, and the readers think, for themselves.

Why We Fight, Why We Need Love, and Why Our Decisions Don’t Matter would be equally at home on your coffee table during a cocktail party as they would be on the syllabus of an introductory philosophy course. Van Booy shows immense respect for both the broad range of thinkers who provide his material and the wide variety of readers who will want to own these volumes.

*Why We Fight, Why We Need Love, and Why Our Decisions Don't Matter, edited by Simon van Booy, are available in paperback from Harper Perennial

FTC Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of the book I received from the publisher.

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