Book Review: “The Book” by Alan Watts

Philosopher Alan Watts

Dedicated readers will notice I updated the tagline in the banner.

“Ski town philosophy” is a much more apt summation of the blog these days. Something about the unchecked youth and recklessness pulsing around me makes me spiral into my head, and continuously think about the deeper things. When I’m not skiing or snowboarding, that is. Those activities remain, deeply, blissfully, entrancing. Outside of those hours, things make a little less sense.

I am more or less exclusively reading philosophy these days.

Alan Watts The Book modern cover

“The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are” by Alan Watts is a playful examination of our perception of our own selves, and how we interpret our place in the world. “The Book” considers the duality of existence, ultimately saying that such constructs as “in-group” and “out-group” suggest a complete unity of existence.

According to Watts, we should stop conceiving ourselves as “other,” an instead see ourselves as a part of the fabric of everything. To put the book’s thesis simply, an in-group can only exist by defining itself in terms of an out-group, thus, there is in fact no separation, and both groups are one and the same.

Watts’ rhetoric is surprisingly approachable, considering the topics he is touching upon. He flirts with Sausserian semiology at points, but his prose never becomes too dense, academic or unintelligible. I do think a basic understanding of semiology and semiotics (thanks English degree!) would provide helpful context for this book, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary.

Watts writes well, and lays the groundwork for a lot of challenging thinking.

One can’t spend much time learning about Alan Watts without encountering his connection to the Beat Generation. Watts, an early Western evangelist of Buddhism, served as a forefather and guiding figure for young beat generation figures such as Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg.

The beat generation and the millennial generation are kindred spirits, although the technological abstraction of our modern day keeps the two from being brothers. You could accurately characterize the two as like-minded cousins, perhaps.

The millennial chases “experience” and “life” above all. Raised in suburbs and by televisions, video games, and the Internet, ours is a generation with a vague sense of unease and rebellion. We don’t know what we want.

To put it in the parlance of the video above, we have a sense that the goal society has presented us with is a hoax, but we have no idea how to dance along with the music of our lives. Dancing to the music of life is where the beat generation excelled. These crazed bums knew a thing or two about how to live— or so it appears, half a century down the road. We must keep in mind what Jack Kerouac wrote in “On The Road”:

“I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”

From there, we must also understand that Kerouac died, angry and bitter, at the age of 47 due to cirrhosis of the liver. His days were spent slurring drunk, ecstatic in his escapism. Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s inspiration for the character of Dean Moriarty in “On the Road,” died at 42. Shortly before he died, he said:

“Twenty years of fast living – there’s just not much left, and my kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.”

The Beats, partially drawing their inspiration from Watts’ Buddhism and cohesive theory of existence, sought to live their lives like music. While Watts would argue that the Beat interpretation of Buddhism was somewhat different than his own, the Beats were drawn to Buddhism because they could not find the answers they wanted within their own culture.

“But the Westerner who is attracted by Zen and who would understand it deeply must have one indispensable qualification: he must understand his own culture so thoroughly that he is no longer swayed by its premises unconsciously.”

–Alan Watts, “Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen” 

Today’s millennials do not understand our own culture thoroughly enough. We are constantly swayed by corporations, conglomerates, and social media, trends which erode our idealism and cut away at our individualism, while seemingly promoting a culture of total acceptance.

Without the awareness of the forces, micro and macro, that act on us on an everyday basis, we cannot find our youth. We will be doomed to an indescribable malaise, a nagging sense of something wrong, something unfulfilled.

“The Book” is a good place to start on that journey of understanding.

One thought on “Book Review: “The Book” by Alan Watts

  1. Great post – I have just read all Phil Parker’s books. The first is called The Lightning Process, I read it and then went on the course for 3 days. Just wish it had been around in my 20’s but what better way to grow old than understanding and loving myself and being a more understanding and kinder person to those around me. Ps I am happiest when skiing down the mountains in Obergurgl, Austria you feel free and alive in the mountains. x

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