Thursday, February 02, 2012

Bookworm Gallery: Philosophy and the Poet

Our bookworm for February is Noelle Leslie dela Cruz, a published poet and an Associate Professor in Philosophy at De La Salle University, who shares her work at Blue Moon Huntress. When she's not in the classroom, Leslie also helps maintain the Buy Your Own Coffee Book Club, which was begun by one of her colleagues and some philosophy majors. "Somewhere along the way, perhaps largely because we aggressively promoted it in Facebook, we generated some interest outside our school," Leslie explains. "So far we’ve already discussed Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality, Dante’s Inferno, Exupery’s The Little Prince, and Murakami’s new book, 1Q84." They usually meet once a month at a different coffee shop in the Metro Manila area.

1. Name three books that you feel would explain the kind of reader you are.
I'd say, in no particular order: The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, Ocean Sea by Alessandro Baricco, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. All of these, in one way or another, address love, mortality/morality, and the nature of reality. I'm really partial to novels that are written lyrically, have more levels than you realize, and are ostensibly about human existence. I'd say these books are "existentialist," without the baggage of philosophical jargon. The mere act of reading them changes you as a person.

2. Who are your favorite authors? Is there anyone on your auto-buy list?
The authors I mentioned in number one are of course among my favorites. Others are Margaret Atwood and Haruki Murakami. A recent discovery is David Ebershoff, whose book The 19th Wife (which about Mormonism) I'm currently reading.

I'm a romance reader as well, but not as much as the last decade. If there's a romance writer I still read, it's Madeline Hunter, who writes excellent medievals and regencies.

3. What are you looking forward to reading in 2012?
I'm perpetually trying to catch up on my huge to-be-read pile, so I'm trying not to go gaga over new titles. I want to be able to read some notable titles I had missed out on. For 2012, it's my goal to read Never Let You Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Atonement by Ian McEwan. If there's time, I also want to read Kafka on the Shore by Murakami, Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen, and The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff.

Leslie considers highlighting memorable lines as her way of personalizing her books. 'I don't feel like I've read them unless I've written on them,' she says. Photo by her friend Arch.

4. Take us through some of your reading habits.
I wish I could say I had the discipline to read only one book at a time. I think I used to do that when I was younger, when many authors were new discoveries for me. (I usually stick to one when I'm devouring an author's backlist.) But now, especially after I got a Kindle, the sheer number of good books out there necessitated a change in reading strategy. But though I'm usually in the midst of reading several books, I usually read only one book per genre (e.g. literary fiction, romance, nonfiction, history, or poetry). It helps that most of what I read are in my Kindle, where I have a special "Currently reading" folder.

5. What's it like to be in a book club?
Participating in a book club is a delight. It forces me to read interesting works I probably wouldn’t have read on my own. It’s also nice to meet people I wouldn’t have otherwise met had it not been for our shared interest in reading. My only frustration though is that you can’t always count on committed attendees. Usually it’s just my colleague and me and a handful of our students who attend regularly, sometimes not even the students. I blame it on the hectic schedule we have at DLSU, as well as the existence of other media that have supplanted reading. Low participation can be very disappointing especially if you’ve enthusiastically read a book and are raring to discuss it, only to find that only two or three other people would actually show up!

6. I don't know anything about Philosophy. Can you recommend some titles that would help me along?
All the great books, I think, already address philosophical issues, even though they may not overtly be about philosophy. But if you’re looking for the latter type, Alain de Botton is a prolific popularizer of the discipline (check out The Consolations of Philosophy, in which he features the life and ideas of six important thinkers). Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, an epistolary novel about philosophy, remains a good introduction, as is Who Needs Philosophy by Ayn Rand. The book that first got me interested in philosophy is From Socrates to Sartre by T.Z. Lavine, which I read in high school. It was Lavine’s exposition of the Cartesian meditations that got me hooked.

If you’re looking for authors who are highly philosophical, or who address philosophical issues, check out the works of Jorge Luis Borges, Margaret Atwood, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Haruki Murakami.

7. How does having a philosophical mindset help you appreciate works of literature? Do you think it's a form of literary criticism?
I think one need not necessarily be in the discipline of philosophy to approach books philosophically. If you’re inquisitive by nature, ponder on the great questions (e.g. Why are we here? What is real? Is there life after death? Does God exist? etc.), or tend to be a critical thinker, then chances are you philosophize along with—or through—books.

As for literary criticism, I’m more of the formalist school so I tend to be suspicious of suspicious ways of reading. I’m referring to all the -isms that reduce the work of art into a simplistic gender, race, or class paradigm. Approaching books philosophically, on the other hand, is less criticism, I think, than conceptual experimentation. You enter the imagined world of the book and consider the questions it asks about any and all aspects of human life.

Leslie also believes that the best thing about reading is "being able to expand your world without leaving your chair. This expansion includes 'traveling' to other places, meeting new people (fictional or real), and dialoguing with people both living and dead. You know, reading is a way of life. I can’t imagine what my consciousness would be like if for example I had not read Thoreau, or Conan Doyle, or Murakami. I believe that familiarity with literature is a prerequisite for wisdom. Good books teach us how to relate with others, how to see what is normally hidden, and even how to be moral! Reading is one of the compensations of being human, and one of the things that fortify us to continue being one."


Chachic said...

I believe that familiarity with literature is a prerequisite for wisdom. -> I love this! Nice interview, Chris and Leslie. I could relate to what Leslie said about trimming down the to-be-read pile, it just keeps on growing.

dementedchris said...

I'm glad you liked reading this, Chachic! It was enlightening to hear what Leslie had to say on a lot of things; it made me look up the unfamiliar titles that she was recommending.

Tin said...

I love Time Traveler's Wife and I hope Leslie gets to read Water for Elephants and Never Let Me Go, both are great reads as well. I'd love to give Sophie's World a shot, I've heard of it being Alice in Wonderlandesque.

I love Leslie's last few lines in your post. About how good books teach us to see what is normally hidden, and about being moral. And she's right about reading as a way of life. I think the way I see life would be considerably different if I hadn't read the books that I did.

dementedchris said...

I enjoy those titles too, Tin! I'm curious about Ocean Sea and The Secret History because Les mentioned her criteria for it (and they also appeal to me!)

I really had fun doing getting in touch with Leslie and hearing her thoughts. I hope you read Sophie's World; I enjoyed reading that that I picked up other (early) Jostein Gaarder titles. :)

Les said...

This is wonderful! Thanks for the opportunity to let me expound on books, books, and more books. More power to you and your blog!

dementedchris said...

I'm really grateful that you agreed to the interview, Les! Thank you again :) I'm looking forward to seeing you in Manila!