Is this what success looks like for an indie writer?

Suppose I took a narrow, economic view of what success looks like for a writer who, like me, doesn’t write full-time, but has a day-job (which, let it be stated for the record, I do enjoy). The advantage of an economic view of success is that it’s easy to measure: one need only ask how much money was made selling the books, minus the cost of producing them.

Well, here’s a rough and imprecise balance sheet for how much it cost me to make my Fellwater / Hidden Houses novels.

+ $4,700 netted from Kickstarter, after fees and deductions.
+ around $100 more from direct sales this summer.

- $550 advertising the project while the fundraising campaign was underway.
- $4,000 for the editor
- $500 for the audiobook version of one of the spinoff novellas
- $900 (approximate) for the work of two artists who illustrated the characters and the heraldry used on the website and in the Kickstarter campaign
- $1000 for the cover designer and interior art designer.
- $1,700 (approximate) sending rewards to the Kickstarter backers.

Result: I lost $3,850. I can’t say I’m surprised by this; I’ve done almost nothing in the last few months to advertise the books, so direct sales have been low. (It’s still depressing and demoralizing, though.)

But that’s only one way to measure success. There are others. Now that the books have been in the reader’s hands for a few months, many of the Kickstarter backers have written to me privately to say how much they enjoyed them. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. For example: J. J. Colvin, a backer from England, wrote this review of Clan Fianna on the book’s Amazon UK page:

It is an ensemble cast piece, with a great sense of each of the major characters being at the centre of their own story, with all of these individual threads weaving a great and complex tapestry of plot. This immediately brings to mind comparisons with Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin, but for my taste this book exceeds much of the work of both of these super-luminaries…

Robert Jordan – George RR Martin – wow! Reading this, I am overwhelmed, humbled, and excited, all at once. Thus I began to wonder if this is what success really looks like for independent writers.

Not only that: some of the Kickstarter backers offered to create art based on the characters and settings: I’m really looking forward to this, and if each artist permits, I’ll share what they make with everyone on the blog and in the project updates.

Interest in my nonfiction works is picking up, too. Here’s Sable Aradia’s review of “The Other Side of Virtue”: the book is from 2008, but the review is from a few days ago:

This book could be a modern manifesto for humanistic Paganism; but its theories can also be applied to most modern Pagan practice. And it could also be read and enjoyed by humanists and naturalists of any faith. It could possibly even be held up to Neil deGrasse Tyson and Stephen Hawking as an answer on the value of philosophy… I love Brendan’s way of articulating this concept in what I have previously described as “his liquid prose.” His education is apparent through his choice of phrasing; but unlike many other academics, he does not write in technicalities and field-specific terminology. It is easily (and enjoyably) accessible to the layperson…

Imagine someone recommending that Tyson and Hawking should read one of my books! Still, an academic with weird interests like mine, who writes for the general public, in addition to (or instead of) other academics, could hope for no higher praise.

Each book of mine represents thousands of hours of time in researching, thinking, writing, editing, and critical analysis. I’m not exaggerating that time commitment: I keep meticulous records of such things. My nonfiction work is backed by an excellent UK-based publisher, which covers the production costs; my fiction work is entirely in my hands, although with my editor and designer I now have a “team” of sorts. It’s a truly huge burden of labour, for everyone involved. Is all that effort “worth it”? Are we successful? With responses such as the two reviews noted above, I’d like to say “yes”. The books are intellectually and artistically successful, or so it seems right now.

Will they ever be commercially successful? I don’t know – and the business side of being a writer almost always depresses me. A good friend of mine once told me that he had a dream in which Fellwater became just as big as Harry Potter. If that dream doesn’t come true, which seems likely to me, then I can still be a writer and a professor at a small college in western Quebec, and I’ll still have something like an enjoyable life. If it does come true – well, let’s wait and see. (And look for a publicist and a literary agent, in the meanwhile.)

Although many of you, friends and family, have given me so much already this year, I’ve a small favour to ask: this holiday season, please tell someone about my books. Write about them on your social networks and blogs and on the bookseller pages; email them to friends; consider giving them as Christmas gifts to people who you think will enjoy them. As an independent writer and publisher, without the backing of a million-dollar marketing department, I remain dependent upon the goodwill of people like yourselves to help promote my work. And as always, you have my deep and abiding thanks.

So, there it is. I wish you and all your loved ones a happy solstice season (that’s my word for the holiday) and a prosperous and good new year.

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An Open Letter to College Textbook Publishers

When a textbook publisher sends me a review copy of one of their textbooks, in the hope that I will use it in a future class of mine, I usually send a reply like this one. I invite all professors everywhere to do likewise. Indeed, in my view, I think professors have something like a moral obligation to help prevent big textbook publishers from exploiting the nearly-captive market of students, especially in this time of economic instability and recession.

Good afternoon,

In my intro philosophy courses, I use a textbook written by me and some of my friends (professional philosophers all), and which I give to my students for free. I also use resources on the internet available for free.

You need to understand that a lot of my students are from working-class or poverty-class families, and they do not have money for textbooks. Some do not have money even for basic necessities such as nutritious food. Those who are from more affluent families are still provided with free or nearly-free resources for use in my classroom: their right to education is exactly the same, no more and no less, than that of their under-privileged peers. This is why I produce my own course content and I publish it personally, using various self-publishing tools, and I make it available to them for the lowest price possible: free, for PDFs (which they read or print in our college library), and there is a paperback copy that they can buy for no more than the cost of printing it. I make no profit on it.

If your company is willing to give textbooks to my students for free or nearly-free, I may consider using them. But otherwise, I will not use textbooks from your company.

Brendan Myers
Professor, Dept. of Philosophy and Humanities
CEGEP Heritage College, Gatineau Quebec Canada.

Postscript: I’m planning a second edition of that texbook of mine. Stay tuned to this blog, or subscribe to my mailing list, for news about it.

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A straw poll: What should I Kickstart next?

As long-time Bren-watchers may know, I rather like Kickstarter. I’ve launched three campaigns there in the last several years; one failed, but two were hugely successful. I’d like to do another one soon. There are three projects in particular that I’m interested in doing, and I welcome your opinions about which one(s) interest you.

- A tabletop RPG (think of Dungeons & Dragons) set in the world of The Hidden Houses, my fantasy series. This project probably has the most “momentum”, as it would be easily connected to my previous Kickstarter campaign. The text is already done; I just need to hire artists, beta-testers, and an editor.

- A second edition of “Clear and Present Thinking, my free college-level textbook on logic and critical reasoning. I’d like to expand it a little bit, and update the exercises and examples. I’ll need to hire contributors, and a designer, to do that. And, of course, I’d like to keep it free.

- A volume of “soft power” strategy games. A few years ago I published “Iron Age: Council of the Clans“, a tabletop strategy game that I invented to teach political science to my students at Heritage College. I’ve invented two more similar games since then, one that looks at economics, and one which involves proposition-logic and argumentation. I’d like to hire an artist or two, and publish them, possibly as an expansion of “Iron Age”.

Naturally, I will make my own decision about which of these projects to run first. But I value your suggestions, and will certainly take them into account.

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Very short stories

I’ve invented a game we could all play on that newfangled social network, Ello. I think this will work on Ello better than on FB or Twitter.

The idea is to write a story, using only 21 words, and post it here as a jpeg image. Then, tag the person or people who inspired you to write that story.

This game is similar to Hemmingway’s challenge of writing a story with only six words. But the six word stories are not as good as the 21 word stories, I think. The six word stories always end up sounding like tabloid headlines. 21 word stories can build a bigger world. Also, by printing the story on a jpeg, writers can also use a little bit of graphic design to help tell their story.

I suppose a 21-word story printed on a jpeg might look like a homemade “meme”. But since Ello doesn’t allow advertising (and, by extension, one may hope, it doesn’t allow clickbait “memes” that serve only to harvest info to be sold by advertisers) maybe it will work there.

I’ll start with this one, which is something I wrote last night as part of a novel I’m working on. This afternoon I happened to notice it was only five lines, with no more than five words per line.

This might be an interesting way to help make Ello into the creative and fun place that FB can no longer be.

with books in his hands

Postscript: Follow me on Ello here.

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More cults, you say? Really?

About that NYT article, “The Cult Deficit” by Ross Douthat, which has been making its rounds on my social media feeds lately:

It’s a fun article; I quoted it on my own FB feed as well, along with a cheeky comment that I’d like to start my own cult because I’m tired of being poor.

Douthat’s thesis appears to be as follows:

The decline of cults, while good news for anxious parents of potential devotees, might actually be a worrying sign for Western culture, an indicator not only of religious stagnation but of declining creativity writ large.

And this is so because:

A wild fringe… is often a sign of a healthy, vital center, and a religious culture that lacks for charismatic weirdos may lack “a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry” as well.

But the argument is really a load of flappery. The central problem of today is not “the decline in creativity writ large”, as Douthat thinks. Just browse through Kickstarter for ten minutes to see that the world is never at a loss for creative people.

The real problem is something like this. “Modernism”, the world view of capitalism, democracy, individualism, human rights, technological progress, and scientific rationality, promised us all a better life: a life of freedom, prosperity, scientific and cultural discovery, world peace, and social justice. But modernism delivered that better life only to some of us; the majority of modernism’s beneficiaries are the rich. Even the middle class hasn’t benefited overmuch from modernity, except that middle class people have bigger houses and more toys. Since the Great Depression, but perhaps most noticeably only now, the middle class has been disappearing. And as is now well known, most young people today cannot expect a material standard of life that’s better than what their parents had, for the first time since the industrial revolution. To most of us, modernity delivered the rat race, punctuated occasionally by bread and circuses. As well as wage slavery, middle-east warfare, religious extremism, global warming, misogyny, racism, you get the idea. These problems have always been with us, obviously; but the point is that modernism was supposed to eradicate them. Or seriously contain them. And it hasn’t. Not nearly as well as was promised.

I don’t think that starting a new cult is the answer. No one wants to go back to the days of guru “Osho” launching chemical weapons attacks on American towns. And I don’t think that re-writing the meaning of the word “cult” will help either. The public just won’t buy it.

The only point in Douthat’s nutty argument that seems sensible to me is the idea which he borrowed from Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, that people should recover the belief that “there are major secrets left to be uncovered, insights that existing institutions have failed to unlock (or perhaps forgotten), better ways of living that a small group might successfully embrace.

This proposition, interesting as I find it, has a subtext. Thiel advances it because he wants to build a floating island city where he and his fellow Libertarians can live a government-free, regulation-free, moral-responsibility-free life. I don’t see how this is meaningfully different from any of the beard-and-sandals cults of the 1970′s, except maybe that his island will have corporate sponsorship. Perhaps this floating island techno-utopia is precisely the “cult” that Douthat has in mind. If Thiel succeeds, he’ll create another gated community for the rich, and more rat-race bread-and-circuses for the rest of us. It will certainly not be part of a creative “wild fringe” (Douthat’s words) because it will still presuppose important mainstream values of the “centre”: especially individualism, capitalism, and technological progress.

But we probably do need a radical re-thinking of what it means to be “modern”. We do need to take a serious look at why modernity hasn’t delivered the goods it promised, not to everyone. And we do need to imagine that there are new possibilities for human life that have not yet been explored, but which creative and thoughtful people might experiment with, and discover.

We don’t have to create new cults, nor build floating islands, to do that.

(Unless your cult will have me as its leader. Ha!)

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Ten Books

So, a lot of my Facebook friends have tagged me to ask about ten books that influenced me in some important way. It’s hard to pick only ten – I live in a library, after all, and have done since I was nine years old – but here’s ten, anyway, that have been on my mind recently. But I want to say more about some of these titles than the pithy paragraph of a Facebook status update. So here we go:

1. Mike Scott, Adventures of a Waterboy.
This is the autobiography of one of my all-time favourite musicians, Mike Scott, frontman of The Waterboys. I got my copy this afternoon: it was waiting for me when I got home from work. I read the first 120 pages in one sitting. It’s magnificent. Knowing his music, and knowing many of the places he speaks of (like him, I too lived for several years in the west of Ireland), reading this book is really taking me somewhere. It is not normally the intention of an autobiography of a celebrity to provoke philosophical thoughts, but this book is making me think of priorities in my life that I need to change. What an adventurous, magical, and real live Mike Scott has lived: and what a routine, almost ‘establishment’ life mine has recently become.

2. Jeff Mitscherling, Aesthetic Genesis.
I read an unpublished draft years ago. It’s an attempt to instigate a new ‘Copernican revolution’ in phenomenology the philosophy of mind: it argues that consciousness is a product of intentionality, not the reverse (as is hitherto believed), and so consciousness may well be something spread out on the earth, everywhere. It seemed exciting, powerful, esoteric, and new. I felt like I was thinking thoughts no one had ever thought before. I have a copy of the complete published work now, and I’m enjoying re-discovering it.

3. Arthur C Clark, 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A book that gave me the same feeling as #2, when I read it for the first time at 10 years old. Its exploration of mind, and computer intelligence, and paranoia, and the prospect of extraterrestrial life, gave to me a lifelong interest in science and philosophy. Although, admittedly, I already had that interest in science, due to the gift of a telescope when I was very young, and this next book:

4. Roy Gallant, Our Universe.
A children’s book about astronomy, produced by the National Geographic Society back in 1980, and I think the first book to reveal a world beyond my local world. Scientifically, it’s now hopelessly out of date. Pluto was still a planet, back then! But it’s lavishly illustrated, and delivers a sense of wonder far better than any religious book I knew at the time.

5. Nichols, The Book of Druidry.
This one seems less revolutionary to me now, than it did when I was 17, a gift from my friend A.D. But back then it was the book that I wanted to be true. It gave me a new model of a wise man that I could look up to, and maybe aspire to become. I think of myself as a philosopher more than as a pagan, now. Indeed as I look back on my life, it seems my paganism was never about ritual or magic, as it seems to be for perhaps most other pagans I know. But my paganism was always about the earth, and about music and friendship and storytelling. And food! And sex. And I remain committed to ideas like pantheism, gnostic neoPlatonism, and humanism. I first encountered these ideas in this book.

6. Browning, The Nameless Man
I include this fiction title, partly because I read it a week ago, partly because I think it’s important to support indie and small press writers, and partly because it’s a gentle-yet-firm expressionist painting of a novel. It’s the story of a man who declines to give his name, visiting Jerusalem, and seeking shelter in an abandoned house along with other pilgrims, while sectarian violence rages outside. Much of the novel involves the nameless man giving speeches, and thus the story can be compared to other philosophical novels like Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, or even Gibran’s The Prophet. Yet there’s something different here: clues about the nameless man’s identity are dropped early, and I enjoyed the puzzle of guessing his name and the anticipation of finding out near the end whether I was right. Further, the nameless hero doesn’t merely descend from on high to tell it like it is: he has a struggle of his own to complete, and by the end of the novel it is mostly resolved – mostly, but not completely, thus preserving the novel’s dramatic tension. The author’s strong grasp of philosophical concepts and of human relations, added to a touch of rage at the social injustices perpetrated in the name of religion, make the reading very satisfying. And I have a signed copy. I’m delighted.

7. Gregory, Gods and Fighting Men.
This book made the world magical for me. It did so twice: first in my 20s, reading “the story of my people” (or at any rate my father’s people), and again in my 30s when I went to live in Ireland and got to visit the places described in the book. I know that a lot of strict Celtic Reconstructionists hate this book, and so do a lot of modern Irish for that matter. They can all suck it. The book is a masterwork of Irish language, folklore, mythology, and nation-building. I still read it, once a year, and have done for nearly 20 years. Lady Gregory is for me what writers like JRR Tolkien and JK Rowling are for so many others.

8. Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture
I bought this book after the author visited NUIG on the academic lecture tour, and I was a neophyte grad student. Loved every word of his talk, so I bought the book. Loved the book too. It’s an intellectual play on space, time, and meaning. Besides, it’s kind of rare to find a philosophy book with photos and illustrations.

9. Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil.
This book is dangerous. Don’t read it unprepared. But read it. Every last remaining vestige of the so-called european ‘Enlightenment’, with its pompous pretentiousness, is utterly and savagely destroyed by this book. And rightly so. And on top of that, it’s a delight to read. It’s like reading the score of an opera. A Wagnerian opera! And I say this as a man committed to the importance of rationality and social justice. But what Nietzsche sees in the gaping hole in the world that his act of destruction leaves behind – well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.

10. James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia.
Probably the first book of environmental science I ever read. I once heard the author speak on CBC Radio, and was fascinated first of all by the sonorous and grandfatherly sound of his voice, and then by the astonishing power of his simple idea: that the earth ecosystem as a whole behaves as if it is a single organism – and this is a scientifically testable idea, not just a visionary hyperbole. I went on to study environmental philosophy precisely because of this book.

It seems this “10 Book” facebook thing was the subject of some data-mining. So, if you participated in it, you just handed to an advertiser a load of personal information they can use to target-market shit to you. Sucker. But I must admit, the results are interesting. Follow this link to see for yourself.

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The Town I Loved So Well

Last week, for my 40th birthday, I visited Elora, the village where I grew up, and which I still think of as “home”. My parents have sold the house, and after they move out it will be much harder for me to visit the village again. So I shot something like ten thousand photos of the house, and of the Elora Gorge. Here are a few of them.

For 31 years, this was my family’s home.

The window in the library – the room in which I decided to be a writer, and wrote my first stuff.

The library. For the computer nerds out there: yes, that is a fully functioning Apple LC-475, on the desk.

Living room.

A path in “my” forest, the Elora Gorge Conservation Area.

That path leads to this landmark: “Hole in the Rock”. (Such an imaginative name.)

Cedar tree roots growing over a rocky ridge.

The much-photographed merging of the Irvine and Grand rivers, overlooked by Lover’s Leap.

This small plateau is the exact spot where I had a number of “spiritual experiences” (for lack of a better word) for the first time in my life. It is the very place where, at the age of 17, I thought I could hear the voice of Herself, in the trees above and the rapids below. And so I decided to become a philosopher.

I’ll post a few stories of growing up here, over the next few weeks or so, maybe. Meanwhile, here’s my sister Nuala’s very fine story of what our house meant to us. Also, if you will forgive the hucksterism, here is a selection from my 2010 book, Circles of Meaning, in which I described what it means to have a home.

As a child, in my free hours after school, or on weekends when I had no responsibilities, I would ride my bicycle all over every street in my village. Perhaps this is because I had many brothers and sisters, and therefore could not find true privacy in the house. But it’s also true that I wanted to explore the village everywhere, and claim it as my own. My family moved to the village a week before my ninth birthday. By the time I was ten, I knew the streets by the shape of the cracks and potholes. I knew the houses by the friendly and unfriendly dogs that would bark at my passing. I knew the bushes where wild raspberries grew. In the winter I knew the shapes of the snow drifts, and the best toboggan hills, and I knew spring was coming when the cedar trees threw off the snow that covered their boughs. There was a conservation area to the west of the village. It started at the place where the Grand River cut a deep gorge through the limestone, eighty feet deep, and it went on forever. I knew this terrain as intimately as I knew the streets and tracks and parks of the village itself. I knew the sinkholes and shallow caves where I could hide, together with a stash of pebbles to throw at passing tourists. I knew how to race through the trees at top speed without crashing into the crags and steppes. I knew the overlooks and plateaus where I could watch the beaten paths, unseen. I invented names for those places, and stories of battles and romances and escapes from danger that happened there. And I had a regular route that took me to each one, in its sequence, like a sentry on guard. These were my sacred places, and this was my land.

The Elora Gorge Conservation Area is where I made the first intellectual and emotional discoveries which deserve to be called ‘spiritual’. What made the landscape spiritual was not something supernatural: I was not seeing visions or experiencing trance states. Nor was there something new every time I explored it. Moreover, the forest was not untouched by civilization. Paved roads, water wells, stone walls, campsites with electric hook-ups, and other signs of human management could be found everywhere. Some of the landmarks of my route included a ruined stone factory, a ruined mill race, and a hand-pumped water well. (That well, by the way, has been filled in, and an unspiritual pressurized tap in a concrete base was installed nearby to replace it. I’m annoyed.)

Yet I think that I knew, somewhere in my childhood mind, that when I raced through the trees on the riverside at full speed, or when I scaled the cliffs of the gorge without any safety harnesses, or did any number of reckless and dangerous things with no thought of injury or death – on those days I knew that I was strong. What is more – when I set out and ran my regular path from one secret place to the next, and saw that all was in order, I was most truly myself.

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In five days, I will turn 40 years old.

Turning 20 and then 30 didn’t feel like much of a milestone. When I turned 30 I was living in Ireland, and I went out to the local with a handful of friends. It was a great night. I wish those friends were here. But it didn’t feel like much of a transition from one stage of life to another.

Turning 40, somehow, does.

When my dad turned 40, I was 11 years old. We rented the gymnasium of St Mary’s School, invited over a hundred guests, hired a caterer, and a DJ, for a surprise party for him. I gave a short speech about how much fun my dad could be. My uncle Noel gave an even better speech. When the DJ opened the dance floor, I didn’t want to dance with anyone, so I danced with a balloon. It was a very fun night. Looking back on it, I think that the occasion taught me that there’s something important about 40, as a milestone in life.

And why is that? Well now that I’m almost 40 and no longer 11, I can reason about it much more clearly. It’s not that I am now “all grown up”, because I’ve felt like that since my mid 20′s, when I began grad school, got jobs, and ran a labour union. And it’s not that “40 is the new 30″ because that’s nothing more than a meaningless anxiety-inducing, reality-blind marketing ploy.

I think what makes 40 feel like a milestone is something like this. My future is no longer fully “open”, “free”, “full of potential”, as I was often told by the adults around me when I was in my late teens. Rather, the reality is that my life is now only partially free; it is strongly configured by the results of all the choices I’ve made over the years, and the accomplishments, failures, opportunities pursued, opportunities declined, and all the forces set in motion by those things. Therefore, here at two-score years less only a few days, I look around my life, and I realize: This is it. What I have now, what I have worked for all my life up to this point, is what I get for the rest of my life. I look around my friends, my work, my material possessions, my state of health, and my world, because this is it, this is what my life has led to, and this is what it will be until I die.

And when might that be? Men in this society of mine, and in this generation, live an average of around 80 years now. So if I do manage to live to this average age, then my 40th birthday marks the half-way point of my life. That, too, is “it”: I’ve only 40 more years to do whatever I may want to do with life.

What do I have to show for my 40 years on this earth? Perhaps more than some; certainly less than many others. I earned my Ph.D and became a professor – in fact, as of last week, I am on the tenure-track. I taught myself to play guitar, and I compose my own music. I’ve published 15 books, though it’s hard to tell if anyone understands them; some are certainly better than others, and at least one which I wouldn’t mind if everyone forgot about it. I’ve lived in three Canadian provinces and two foreign countries; I’ve visited all ten provinces, five American states, and eight countries in Europe. I’ve amassed a private library of over 700 books, most of them classics in the philosophy, literature, and mythology of Western civilization. In fact I still remember what my first “library” looked like: a row of books, their spines facing out, on the top shelf of my locker at Centre Wellington high school, right next to a poster that said “Grow Your Hair.” I suppose these are interesting accomplishments, but “under a certain aspect of eternity” (as the philosopher Spinoza says) they all look rather small.

And like many people who reach the 40th year, I have had my share of tragedies. Many, now, are the friends of mine who have died; some of those friends were lovers, and I love them all still. Twice now, I conceived a child with a woman I loved, and both times, including just last week, nature took its course before the child was born. And there are some friends who are no longer part of my life because I was an asshole and I pushed them away. These tragedies and failures are also what I have to show for my forty short years. And these, too, are small beneath the aspect of eternity, but at the halfway mark of my life they loom large: the things that remind me of them still make me wistful and nostalgic, even after many years.

My brother Turlough likes to joke that growing up is a trap. And it’s not like there’s no lack of evidence to support that claim. We grow up, and then we have to deal with jobs, responsibilities, obligations to others, old injuries and health problems which once were ignorable but now linger for weeks.

But as my partner MC reminds me, growing up is also pretty good. It brings financial freedom, political rights, greater awareness of the world, greater ability to reason and to imagine, and of course much better sex. And most of my friends who are in their 40′s now, or beyond, assure me that their 40s were the best years of their lives. So it seems I probably still have much to look forward to.

And I must say that it seems I will be living my next forty years surrounded by some truly talented, beautiful, and extraordinary people. You all know who you are. And this, too, is small beneath the aspect of eternity, but it is the still small voice heard above all other voices. There is a light which shines from those who make music and tell stories and share philosophy together. It is the light of culture, the light of eudaimonia, the light of human lives bravely and wonderfully lived. If you were traveling through the air over the earth, you could look down and see it, like glowing candles in dark fields, illuminating the land around it, shining out to the universe. This light warms us like hearthfire and sustains us like air; it is all we know of ourselves, it is all we see of the world around, it is all we ever become. But, ah! It is the light that creates, the light that blesses, the light of all lights, the light of reality itself. It is the feeble fragile thing which banishes the heaviest darkness. It says no more and no less than this: “I am here” – the most important three words anyone can say.

There isn’t going to be a big party for me like there was for my Dad (I just don’t have that many friends) but there will be a potluck gathering, and some guitar playing, in the house in Elora where I grew up. It will be nostaligic, too, as my parents have sold the family home and it may well be the last party we host there, before we move out, and the new owners move in.

But I hope that on this last day, the light of culture shall shine from this old house, this place of many stories, this second Tir na n-Og, this fortress built by many hands against the envy of less peaceful folk, this nurse, this nest of happy children, this little world, this Maple Villa set by the village green, this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this Canada.

Let us all make such a light, with the little time we are all given to live. And life shall be good.

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Accessible philosophy: What can we do to make philosophy more accessible, and less weird, for the general public?

Recently, the famous American scientist and media personality Neil DeGrasse Tyson made a grand sweeping dismissal of philosophy. Read about it here.

My knee-jerk reaction, of course, was to dismiss Tyson as one who doesn’t know what he’s talking about. His argument misrepresents philosophy in general, misrepresents the philosophy of science, and comes dangerously close to painting all branches of philosophy with the same tar that he paints philosophy of science. These are the fallacies of straw man, and hasty generalization. His style was patronizing and asshole-ish, too.

Suppose we set that aside for a moment and asked where this anti-philosophy attitude came from. Tyson is not the first to declare the end of philosophy – philosophers themselves have done so a few times over the years. Here’s Martin Heidegger doing it, in a 1975 documentary film. As observed by my friend GB, on my Facebook page (where I shared the link to Tyson’s comments yesterday) philosophers tend to do a bad job communicating to the public what we do. Philosophers often use a unique and highly specialized vocabulary, and we talk about very weird and obscure concepts, making the whole thing seem esoteric and confusing to outsiders. I suppose that’s what makes it easy for people like Tyson to dismiss us so casually.

Yet another friend of mine, also with the initials GB, observed that this isn’t the case, well not as much, outside the English-speaking world. Here in Quebec we’ve got Charles Taylor, who was one-half of the Taylor-Bouchard Commission on “reasonable accommodation of religious minorities”, a major political policy research text. Francois Lyotard was commissioned by the government of Quebec to write a report on “the state of knowledge” (i.e. an education policy report), which effectively initiated postmodernism.

In the English speaking world, there’s Bertrand Russel, who invented the peace symbol, and campaigned for the total abolition of nuclear weapons. Did six months in jail for it too. There’s Peter Singer, who invented the animal rights movement, almost single-handed. John McMurtry is one of the leading intellectual influences on the Occupy movement and its predecessor the Anti-Globalization Movement, and also one of the forces behind the Zeitgeist films. And he’s a former footbal player with the Calgary Stampeders – how cool is that! And there’s Alain de Botton, who has done lots of TV and film, and who curates museums, publishes a philosophical tabloid magazine, and runs a kind of humanist life-coaching organization called “The School of Life”.

But I suppose these outstanding examples look like no more than exceptions that prove the rule. Ask someone at random to name three philosophers, and they might name two of the ancient Greeks and stop there.*

The question I want to ask is this: what can philosophers do to make philosophy more accessible, more relevant, and less weird, for the general public?

Here’s some suggestions.

- Lower the price of philosophy textbooks. For every college and university professor who assigns an expensive textbook, there are hundreds of students who don’t have the money. With the proliferation of free or nearly-free philosophy resources on the internet and in libraries, including my own textbook on logic and critical thinking, there is simply no excuse for any philosophy teacher to put a financial barrier between her students and the knowledge they seek. Indeed, I claim that any philosophy prof who makes their students spend money on a textbook, when there’s a cheaper alternative of equal or greater quality, does a moral wrong. And publishers which charge three-digit figures for books that students will use for 15 weeks and then give away or throw out, also do a serious moral wrong.

- Make philosophy, especially the critical thinking skills and the history of ideas, compulsory at high school and/or college and university. No, I’m not kidding. Most European countries do it; Quebec does it at the CEGEP level. The rest of Canada should get with the program already. So should America. No, it would not be hard. I once taught logical positivism to a group of 10-year-old kids. It was easy and fun. Anyone who says that analytical thinking skills are beyond the abilities of the average high school student is simply wrong. And I can prove it.

- When philosophers write books, they should write for the public, not just other philosophers. I mean it when I say I don’t give a shit about the academic publish-or-perish rat race. I think professional philosophers should stop caring about trying to impress each other and justify their tenures, and start caring about the love of wisdom again. I’ve written 15 books now and none of them are published by “academic” publishers who distribute mainly to specialists and libraries. Some were written for the pagan community (a move which, it now appears, may have been limiting.) But the books I’m most proud of were written for everyone. Of course, this means that I’ve probably shut myself out of ever working for a university ever again. Hiring committees take one look at the spine of my books, then declare them “not academic books” and dismiss them. I saw it happen once. But I stand by my claim that philosophy belongs to everyone, and therefore, philosophers should write for everyone.**

- Get philosophers on television and film. And yes, I know how dangerous this is. When philosophers are asked questions by students or other researchers, they take their time and give the most complete and comprehensive answer they can. But when they are asked questions by journalists, and encouraged to give quick sound-byte answers with minimal preparation, they end up sounding like idiots. Philosopher James Rachels wrote about this in a fabulous essay called “When Philosophers Shoot From The Hip.” But suppose there was a TV talk show, Top Gear style (without the casual misogyny and racism), featuring philosophers as main personalities. They could start each episode with a question, then bring on special guests and randomly selected audience members to debate the question, go on location to places around the world where something philosophically interesting happened, play logic puzzle games or strategy games, and crack jokes with each other. It would be a lot of fun. There’s no reason why philosophers should have surrendered all public discourse on philosophical themes to psychologists like Dr. Phil, or well-spoken but occasionally asshole-ish scientists like Tyson, or even religious fanatics like [REDACTED]. Imagine a drama series about a team of philosophers who investigate crimes, or supernatural events, or outer space. That would be no less awesome than shows like House, or Bones, or Breaking Bad. In fact, I volunteer to write the script of the pilot.

Let me close on what might be an “appeal to tradition” point. Some of the greatest philosophers in the canon of Western thought were not professors. Spinoza was a lens grinder. Socrates was a stonemason. David Hume was a pool hall hustler. And they wrote their books or taught their ideas to everyone, and for everyone, not just other philosophers. If we contemporary philosophers can do no better, then it is perhaps partially our own fault that people like Tyson tell us we don’t belong here anymore.

I invite you to use the comments thread on this blog post to make more suggestions about how philosophers could make their work more accessible to everyone.


*Well, if we selected people truly at random, from the whole human race, you’ll likely be asking someone from Asia, and you’ll get Confucius or Buddha.

**I’m a big fan of Open Court’s pop culture and philosophy series. A friend of mine was published in one of their most recent titles, “The Muppets And Philosophy”. Love it.

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What is (my) fantasy fiction really about?

As most of you know, the majority of my books are nonfiction, and my background is in philosophy and drama, and not literature. Why, then, did I write fantasy fiction? And can fantasy fiction be philosophical? Many critics believe that fantasy writing is frivolous and escapist. Here’s a short argument for why that criticism is wrong.

In fantasy fiction, the arc of the plot depends in some way on a bending of the rules of reality as we presently know them. But that, it seems to me, allows writers to draw special attention to something in our real world, and in our real lives. Good fantasy can be full of magic spells, fantastic monsters, and amazing landscapes – but it has to be about characters, in the end. Bad fantasy is about a character learning to cast a magic spell, or striving to kill a supernatural monster. Good fantasy is about life and death, fate and free will, reality and illusion, and similar natural immensities. In fantasy fiction, characters confront those things with heightened urgency. As we follow the story, perhaps we may learn something about the nature of those immensities, explore new ways to respond to them, and learn something about ourselves as human beings. As the philosopher Paul Ricoeur taught, literary fiction is the laboratory of good and evil:

…it is in literary fiction that the connection between action and its agent is easiest to perceive and that literature proves to be an immense laboratory for thought experiments in which this connection is submitted to an endless number of imaginative variations.

(Ricoeur, Oneself as Another, p.159)

Think of Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”. It isn’t really about a ring of invisibility. It’s about war, death, and courage. Similarly, the Harry Potter series isn’t really about students learning to be wizards at an English boarding school. It’s about friendship, and growing up, and it’s about fascism and the nature of evil.

Similarly, my “Fellwater” series may look like it’s about people descended from various ancient gods, who have been fighting each other for more than two thousand years. But it is actually about whether there’s still a place for heroes in the modern world, and whether conflicted or flawed characters can be heroes too. It’s about power relations, and cult recruitment, and misanthropy. It’s about what it is to have a home, a history, and a purpose.

It’s also about secret castles in the north, and Irish skinboats that can fly, and giant gorillas with four arms, and people who pull swords out of thin air and start fighting with them. So, the series is rigorously intellectual, clearly.

Lots of philosophers have written poetry and fiction to explore philosophical themes: Jean-Paul Sartre, Umberto Eco, and Iris Murdoch come to my mind as examples. And while I wouldn’t compare my works to theirs, still I like to imagine that I’m following their footsteps.

But I’m pretty sure I’m the first philosopher to write about giant gorillas with four arms.

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