One of my failings as a reader is that I don’t read enough contemporary fiction; I haven’t read a single book off last year’s list of nominees for the Man Booker Prize, or probably off of any of the other short-lists for the “best of the best” literary awards. When I go to a bookstore, I usually bypass the New Release section and head straight for the classics, probably because I feel perpetually several hundred years behind on the list of Must-Reads.
The problem is, of course, that there are too many books to read (And what a lovely problem that is to have. It reminds me of the Billy Collins poem “The Trouble with Poetry“) and I was born too far in the hole. There’s no way I could ever read myself completely through even the past several centuries of works and wind up happily heading into a bookstore knowing that the most recent Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel wasn’t just an option, but almost undeniably the best option.
If I had any reading-related New Year’s resolutions this year, the most important one was probably to read more contemporary writing. So I began by using a Christmas gift certificate to pick up 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein. I’d heard about this book from a variety of sources (including the weekly NPR column What We’re Reading) and the mixture of philosophy and fiction sounded like something I’d really enjoy.
The novel follows Cass Seltzer, scholar and professor of the psychology of religion at the fictional Frankfurter University who has just become famous for publishing a book titled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, which contains an appendix presenting and subsequently refuting 36 arguments for the existence of God. Cass, newly catapulted into intellectual stardom as “The Atheist with a Soul,” won me over in the second chapter by quoting from one of my favorite Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poems, and I was just as quickly enchanted by his charismatic and just generally fantastic anthropologist ex-girlfriend, Roz, and the six-year-old mathematical prodigy and son of a Hasidim Rebbe, Azarya.
Beyond housing a mélange of fascinating characters, Goldstein’s book is part an affectionate and satirical exploration of the upper echelons of American academia, part a thoughtful and compelling investigation of the metaphysical quandaries surrounding being and identity. These themes are brought together around one of the most fascinating divisions in the history of thought, the confrontation between religion and science, which is approached both through Cass’s reflection on his own religious experience (as well as those of others) and through the rational, scientific and philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God.
The novel’s appendix contains the 36 arguments Cass included in his best-selling The Varieties of Religious Illusion, but just as Cass says about his own book, the appendix is really just an appendix; the real story here is one of experience, of the experience of being Cass Here, of being located in this strange, uniquely human mixture of mind and body; of being minuscule and mortal, and confronting the infinite and the amaranthine.
I’m glad I liked this book so much. It bodes well for my resolution to read more contemporary fiction.
If you like 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: You could search out some of Goldstein’s other books, like her debut novel The Mind-Body Problem (I haven’t read it. Yet). For more on the God/Science dilemma in philosophy, try Descartes’ Bones: A Skeletal History of the Conflict Between Faith and Reason. I also hear the recently released film Creation deals with Darwin’s conflicting feelings about his research into evolution and his wife’s and his own religious beliefs. In another genre entirely, Goldstein’s writing reminded me a tiny bit of P.D. James and her poet-detective Adam Dalgleish.