Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Sunday Philosophy Club (not a book review!)

This time last year we were in sunny Singapore.

I often borrow some crime fiction books from our local library to take away on such home visits. It helps to settle the jet lag.

Last Saturday I took our son to the library so that he could pick up more books for his "reading challenge". Asked absent-mindedly if they have books on the "#1 Detective Agency". I first heard this on radio and was fascinated.

The librarian -- maybe she's on HRT now -- said, "Alexander McCall Smith, isn't it?" and then bounced over to the shelf, "Let me show you where they are." "Bounced" is the operative word.

I felt obliged to borrow a book or two after this. The Sunday Philosophy Club took my fancy (why? later ...).

I started reading this on Sunday evening. I was really chuffed because the author has allowed the heroine Isabel Dalhousie to sprinkle the book with philosophical musings. As I twittered on Monday morning:

"Loving the Alexander McCall Smith The Sunday Philosophy Club. Time to read (of, about) philosophy in any form is a treat to me."

Then I googled AMS (Alexander McCall Smith) before breakfast and found more information about this series.

Chuckled over the critics' comments, like:

The New York Times sees her [Isabel's] philosophical musings as “less than riveting”.

According to BookReporter.com : “the tone is a bit daunting for readers who never progressed beyond Philosophy 101 in college”.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch calls Isabel “the anti-Precious” and suggests that the novel will “delight McCall Smith's existing fans and win him some new ones”.

The USA Today's reviewer commended Isabel’s penchant for philosophical self-examination and saw the novel as a “painless introduction to philosophical questions”.

I guess I am one of those "new" fans of AMS. I find the Philosophy painless rather than daunting. I was, after all, chided by Cedric Pan (one of my Philsophy professors) when, in my final year at university, I asked if I could put his name down as an academic/character referee in my CV.

"Aren't you staying to do your Honours degree?"

Fact is I would have loved to do an Hons. degree in Philosophy but didn't think I was good enough. Although I knew for a fact that my second-year essay on Kierkegaard was being circulated and studied by the third-year students reading Existential Philosophy (I wasn't, having opted for "Modern Philosophy" with "cowboy" Dr Patterson instead) I didn't think I was clever enough to read Philosophy any further.

Cedric's remark spurred me on. I studied very hard for my finals. But, as I have recounted to my son at least twice, I forgot to turn my exam question paper over in my final final "Buddhistic Philosophy" paper.

I found myself giving the same content twice in my answers and wondered why the questions were so limited in scope.

Then fifteen minutes before the end of my three-year undergraduate life I realized that HAD I -- "if only" is such a poignant phrase, isn't it?, if only I had -- turned the question paper over, I would have found not one but TWO other questions I could have answered with relative ease.

After all I knew "everything" required to argue over karma, dukkha and nibbhana. No, I didn't want to be reborn as a cockroach. Thank you very much.

And so -- no "if's" -- I was marked down for using the same material twice in completing that final final exam.

I failed miserably in getting into that very elitist Philosophy Honours Class. Few wanted to read Philosophy in my time. It was not a "marketable" subject. They wouldn't even let you into teachers' training with a Philosophy degree.

To rub salt into the wound, not only did all those who opted for Dr Patterson's paper fail to make the cut (his paper was so tough one of my mates walked out of the exam), many of my friends who had been regurgitating my Kierkegaard paper were offered a place -- which they rejected!

It transpired that these friends were practically told what questions to expect at their Existential Philosophy "revision class" by the lecturer whose name escapes me. (Lucky him.)

There were some 200+ students fighting for 20 places in the Sociology Honours class. I found myself -- most unexpectedly -- offered a place in "Sociology Honours" instead. ("Sociology" was made up of Sociology and Social Anthropology and to this day my social science still straddles both.)

And because of that mistake in my Buddhistic Philosophy 306 (or whatever, sorry Mr Goh, you have been such an inspiration since you introduced me to Logic in PH101) I am now a PhD in Social Anthropology. Not Philosophy.

Got that?

So I chuckled even more when I read more information about the AMS books I haven't read. Wikipedia does spoil some of the fun that way by revealing the plots.

Apparently in a sequel, InTheNews.com says that "the interjections of philosophical and high-brow intellectual reasoning ... can seem snobbish and isolating to the average reader, ie those without a PhD."

I shared this with my son at breakfast and had a good laugh. My young son enjoys reading Philosophy for Kids and we often have protracted philosophical discussions.

Well, I have yet to finish reading this book. Last night I read about Isabel receiving an article from someone in the Philosophy Department of the (wait for it) National University of Singapore (NUS).

Well, what do you know? As I sometimes peer-review journal articles as well and have in fact reviewed one from NUS (the articles come to me "anonymized" but you only have to turn to the Bibliography, note whose name is listed repeatedly to guess who had submitted the paper) I can identify with Isabel's job.

Especially when I used to be a full-time editor (of a Christian magazine) and had recently considered offering my services for free to a journal desperate to find an editorial team. After all I am the inspiration behind SOAg (Sociologists Outside Academia Group).

But alas, unlike Isabel, I am not in my early forties (any more), live in a large house with a summer house (hmm a garden office will be nice), nor have the services of a very amicable and efficient housekeeper. (A butler has been the only item on my Christmas list for some years.)

I was also fascinated by the author's reference to the (lack of) use of handkerchiefs. As you know I rather fancy myself as the #1 Hankies Agency. The very positive response to my recent addition of handmade organic cotton lawn hankies has taken me by surprise.

I also play the trombone and flute (not terribly but not as well as I would like to) and love the idea of the RTO -- Really Terrible Orchestra.

Must go load the dishwasher now and perhaps finish reading the book tonight?? Must leave the hankie-sewing till tomorrow.

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