Book review: The Other

October 24, 2009

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

The Other, by Ryszard Kapuscinski, is collection of six lectures written and delivered by Kapuscinski between 1990 and 2004. He was a Polish foreign correspondent who spent a great deal of time in the developing world reporting on the events taking place there. I had never heard of Kapuscinski when this book caught my attention while browsing at the library (although I have a vague memory of seeing the title of one of his other books, Travels with Herodotus, somewhere before, perhaps on a blog). I was intrigued by the subject matter, as “othering” is something I have thought quite a bit about, and I was not disappointed. Kapuscinski draws on his own experiences and various philosophical lines of enquiry both to acknowledge our experience of “the Other” when we encounter someone who is different from us and to make a strong case for recognizing our common humanity as our world becomes more and more globalized and multi-cultural.

One section I found particularly illuminating was his breakdown of the possible reactions when we encounter “an Other.” He points out that all options have always been there, and that we choose which one to take:

And so the three possibilities I have mentioned have always stood before man whenever he has encounter an Other: he could choose war, he could fence himself in behind a wall, or he could start up a dialogue.

Over the course of history man has never stopped wavering between these options; depending on the situation and culture he makes now one, now another choice; we can see that he is changeable in these choices, that he does not always feel certain, and is not always standing on firm ground.

It is hard to justify wars; I think everyone loses them, because it is a defeat for the human being. It exposes his inability to come to terms, to empathise with the Other, to be kind and reasonable, because in this case the encounter with the Other always ends tragically, in a drama of blood and death.

These paragraphs immediately resonated with me because it puts in to words something I have felt for a long time, that war represents a human failure. The perspective that Kapuscinski offers is an important contribution to the discussion of peace.

The Other is under 100 pages and a quick read. The translation from Polish is good: the language flows easily and it does not feel translated. I highly recommend it!

Book review: Three Cups of Tea

October 20, 2009

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I am so glad that I finally got around to reading Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace… One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. This book tells an incredible story, one that is well worth reading. In the early 1990s, Mortenson made a failed attempt to climb the peak K2 in Pakistan. On the way down, he took a wrong turn that changed his life. He ended up in a small village, where the people took him in and offered him food and shelter. While there he saw that the children had no school, but made attempts to do their lessons outside on the freezing ground. He made a promise to build them a school, and since that time has built not only that school but many others in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. His courage and passion for this work is incredibly inspiring.

The book itself is in the third person; essentially it is David Oliver Relin telling Mortenson’s story. It reads like a novel, with edge-of-the-seat gripping action, beautiful descriptions of the people and landscape, and many quotes from the individuals who work with or have been helped by Mortenson. I greatly enjoyed actually reading it and the time passed quickly while I read.

Mortenson’s actions are inspiring, but the book is clearly his story, one that can not be copied. It is not as if any random person could waltz in to Pakistan, say they’re going to build a school, and be accepted in doing in. Mortenson’s grounding for all his work is in human relationships. He built a relationship with the individuals in the village first, and built the school second. While this makes it a story unique to him and his personality and strengths, it also demonstrates better than words ever could the importance of building relationships with other people, whether it is the neighbor across the street or a poverty-stricken family in a developing country.

I have no doubt that Mortenson’s work in building schools where children can receive balanced, non-extremist educations, is doing more for peace in that region than all the bombs my government has shamefully dropped on them. His work particularly emphasizes educating girls and empowering women, and it is clear time and again that when the women in a village become empowered, the quality of life for the entire village improves. And when a village’s quality of life improves, the people in it will be less drawn to extremism. I think Mortenson should win the Nobel Peace Prize and I hope he does someday.

I highly recommend Three Cups of Tea.

Book review: Seeds of Peace

October 17, 2009

Note: I also posted this on my other blog, Books and Other Miscellany.

I picked up Seeds of Peace: A Buddhist Vision for Renewing Society, by Sulak Sivaraksa, at a garage sale because it sounded intriguing and I am drawn to books about peace. Unfortunately, I did not get that much out of it. I started it August, but it did not hold my interest that well, so I interrupted my reading of it with The Rabbi. I came back to Seeds of Peace in September because I did want to finish it, but I couldn’t really get in to it.

I found it difficult to tell what exactly Sivaraksa was getting at in Seeds of Peace. The chapters felt somewhat disconnected from each other, each one its own self-contained essay. Several of the earlier chapters address specific historical and political events in East Asian. I am not familiar with recent East Asian history and most of the time did not know the context of what Sivaraksa was referring to. This was not really what I was expecting in this book, and I didn’t find it that interesting.

The last chapter in the book, “A Buddhist Model of Society,” probably summarizes all of Sivaraksa’s main points and is the closest to what I expected the book to be. Sivaraksa starts the chapter by telling two Buddhist myths, proceeds with a discussion of what the ideal Buddhist society looks like and how the myths illustrate that, and then continues with an exploration of what needs to be done in our society to achieve peace. I found this part mildly interesting but most of what he said seemed similar to other things I have read or thought. For example, he says that we need to curb consumerism, strengthen democracy, and work towards both internal and external peace, all of which I have thought about before.

Seeds of Peace has the most non-Western perspective of any non-fiction book I have read. Sivaraksa writes quite firmly from an East Asian perspective when he addresses historical events and politics. He describes Buddhism and the role it plays in East Asian culture from the perspective of someone who is a part of that culture, as opposed to the perspective a Western person might write from. Reading it made me realize how accustomed I am to reading books in which my identity as an American of European descent is taken as a given. I felt more like an outsider with this book and I suspect that this may have contributed to the fact that I did not get as much out of the book as I hoped. It may be a book worth reading again someday.

I am counting Seeds of Peace towards the Culture/Anthropology/Sociology category of the World Citizen Challenge. I definitely feel like I got a view into a different culture. It is my sixth book for the challenge but I still have two more categories.