This Week, I Read… (2021 #17)

#47 – The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran

  • Mount TBR: 45/100
  • Beat the Backlist Bingo: A book with illustrations
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

A quote from the final pages sums up my problem with this book, and with almost any book I’ve read that promises deep insights into life, the universe, or human spirituality:

“If these be vague words, then seek not to clear them.”

I won’t say that I got nothing from this book, but I got very, very little. For every line that resonated with me, for every tiny chunk of fable that seemed to make clear a fundamental truth about existence, there were five more bits that I read and thought, “how antiquated,” or “how limiting,” or, “how vague.”

Because in trying to be all things to all people, to reach as wide an audience as possible (as it clearly has) it has to be vague and applicable to everyone. I won’t attribute capitalist motives to an author who took twelve years to write a book of not even a hundred pages, published almost a hundred years ago: trying to view it through today’s modern lens takes this laughably out of context. But as I read, I did get a sense of the author seeing himself as the prophet bringing this pablum to the masses, and while a quick read of the history of the book and its author makes it clear the content draws on multiple religious faiths, the bones of it are obviously Christian, right down to the Scripture-like style.

Which can be beautiful, at times, even as it is vague, high-minded tripe.

I’m wary of any book that promises spiritual revelation. And now that I’ve read this one, I’m skeptical of its ability to reveal truth when it’s so riddled with contradiction–in particular, the fact that the entire story is framed as the Prophet delivering wisdom through speech, yet “…in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.” So all of us normal people, we talk just to hear ourselves and it’s useless, but you, special Mr. Prophet, you drop pearls of brilliance twenty-six times in a row? Plus, of course, that built-in “get out of jail free” card, the line I quoted at the beginning of the review, that tells the reader “hey, it’s okay to not fully understand this, don’t think about it too hard” because it all might unravel if you do. Yet, clearly the author thought about all of this very hard–I would never have guessed it took so long to write such a short book, but I guess if one is selling a philosophy rather than a story, one has to develop it first. And the fable about teaching also boils down to “you already know these things deep inside you, so what can teachers actually do?” Which is also a contradiction–the author is trying to teach me his way of spirituality, and it’s not ingrained in me already–and also rubs badly against my grounding in the sciences, because that’s not how science works.

I won’t say this book is entirely without value, but it’s basically a mirror–when I read it, I agreed with the parts I already agreed with, and rejected the parts that made little sense to me or I outright disagreed with. In the end, it didn’t teach me anything or deliver any kind of spiritual awakening.

That second star in the rating is for the beauty of the language alone, because it is well-crafted, and when I read a few lines out loud to myself, the cadence is charmingly musical and flowing. My view of the actual content is solidly one-star.

And now that I think about it, even writing a review to post qualifies as “talking,” in the sense of communicating ideas through words, so here, too, my thinking about this book is supposedly “half murdered,” yet the reason I write reviews is as much to clarify and codify my feelings and reactions to the books I read, as it is to have other people read the reviews and know my thoughts (and possibly allow my opinion to sway their decision to read the book, or not, depending on the book and the person involved.) Would the author be hostile to the idea of book reviews? An interesting thought experiment.

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