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on 19 June 1998
David Abram argues persuasively that the alphabet and written language have alienated us from the world in which we live. He compares our platonism, which imprisons intelligence and subjectivity within humans and denies them to other creatures, to the animism of oral cultures, which regards all beings as intelligent subjects. The alphabet, invented by Semites and perfected by the Greeks, was instrumental in this great change. The knowledge and wisdom that our ancestors learned from other creatures we now find in the printed word. Abram, an ecologist and philosopher now living in New Mexico, says we are intelligent, subjective beings because we are part of an intelligent, subjective universe. The unfinished task he leaves us with is to reconcile the beauty of the written language of books with the living language of our environment.
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on 28 December 2008
The introduction was enchanting, but I found the first chapter hard; it takes us through the history of perception and makes a tour of how we ended up perceiving the world as we do. But I stuck with it and boy, was it worth it! A hugely satisfying read from a shamanic, esoteric, classical and philosophical view point. After I read it, I put the book down and went outside to experience nature and the world around us from horizon to horizon - literally.

I gave it four stars, because although I loved the book, I would have liked to read more of his personal experience as found in the wonderful introduction; more of his way of looking at the world rather than all the philosophy; perhaps more practical tips rather than theory - but maybe he is saving it all up for a follow-on book. I would certainly buy it.

In the end, although you feel as if you want to give up the written word and never read another book again, it shows you how you can gain balance in this media driven society.

He may be a magician in a 'performance' sense, but he is also a skillful and well worded magician of words. Thought provoking and inspiring. As I said before, would love to see a more 'personal' book from him in the future.
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on 23 February 2008
Review from Jay Griffiths, author of "Wild: An Elemental Journey"

This is one of the rarest, most utterly original books there is, and indeed could ever be. It is written by someone whose soul is that of a magician and poet and whose art is so triumphant with sheer spirit that every sentence is radical and radicalizing. It is a book whose comprehension of the human condition is generous, natural and enormous. It describes the necessity of nature not just for human being but for human thinking; this is a cry for the protection of the human mind.

It has deeply influenced my own thinking, from the moment I read it, and has remained one of the best books I've ever read.
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on 3 February 1998
One day I spotted a bird at my feeder that I didn't recognize. I got out my field guide, identified the bird, mentally patted myself on the back, then looked out at him again. He was a perky handful of mottled brown fluff, with delicate feet and shiny black eyes -- and it suddenly struck me that whatever name I applied to him was utterly irrelevant to the living reality of the bird himself.
Another pertinent story: I live in high desert country, where a fragile ecosystem has evolved over millennia, perfectly adapted to the region's harsh soil and scarce water. In recent years, a number of people have bought plots of land near my house and put mobile homes on them. They've then scraped every hint of vegetation off the lot. The ambitious ones do things with gravel and railroad ties and bags of fertilizer. But most just leave the soil bare, as if possession is exemplified by their victory over "weeds."
So I read Abram's book with a shock of recognition. His concepts aren't particularly original (I kept being reminded of the English Romantic poet Wordsworth), and he often takes for granted that his readers accept his assumptions. I find it ironic, too, that such an eloquent and persuasive writer should devalue language. While I think he takes that argument too far, he's absolutely right that by defining "knowledge" and "civilization" as "distance from the non-human," we've lost a sense of our place in nature that is endangering our planet's health and our survival as a species. It's unfortunate that the book is being marketed through New Age and ecological sources; it deserves a much wider readership.
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on 4 September 1997
Abram has woven many abstract, complex ideas into this wonderful book. His concepts of participation, of a reciprocity between the inanimate (as well as animals) and humans, of a tension and exchange, helped me solidify many concepts I found seeds of in fiction books (especially Pynchon, Delillo, and Abbey). He never comes off as tacky New Age or bored academician--everything presented in this book is sincere, thoughtful, and thoroughly engrossing.
The book bogs down slightly in the latter stages, as he discusses the nature of language, and his tone is on even keel throughout (only rarely does he stab with his words when something particularly bothers him), but overall this book will be remembered a decade from now as a landmark; hopefully, as the germ for a school of thought that will help America, and the world, to find a solution to our cancerous growth habits.
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on 2 December 2008
As a classicist I found this little book totally revisoned my understanding of early Greek 'literature.' Traditional approaches to Homer, for example, are usually divided between the radical Parryists (an almost extinct bunch named after Millman Parry) who analyse the poems for formulaic patterns and produce detailed statistical data for occurences and repetitions, and those who rebel against this trend claiming it devalues Homeric poetry. David Abram not only made me realise that Homer must be understood in relation to oral poetry, he taught me what it means to understand oral poetry. I also found his ideas shaping my awareness of the early Milesian presocratics, especially Anaximenes.
Of course, Abram's arguments have been weaved together from a wide variety of sources. Being a classicist I was already aware of the work of Eric Havelock and Walter Ong to whom Abram is deeply indebted. But it is this eclectic mix of ideas that makes this book a fresh and dazzling experience in a crusty old subject.
Being also interested in recent studies in cognitive science, I was overjoyed to see that George Lakoff and Mark Johnson' 'Philosophy in the Flesh' culminates with a brief description of Abram's ideas.
For those wanting to read more Abram, check out the website for the Allinance of Wild Ethics, though this remains his only book to date.
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on 1 December 2009
A fascinating odyssey through the mind, first with the philosophical viewpoint of phenomenology which at last tries to describe reailty as it shows itself to us/itself and the perspective of the other both indigenous peoples and animals and plants. At times lyrical and deeply personal and at others academic it nevertheless doesn't let go of the connection it forms at the beginning with tales of Abrams life. One feels that the experience of the world so honestly told throughout the book at times, provide the true wonder evident in Abrams life. It is a pity more of these experiences were not forthcoming. It reminds me of the answer given by a Zen student in Japan when asked about his practice : "the world is so beautiful you almost can't stand it"
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on 3 September 1998
This book was a pleasure to read. Skillfully written, reading it was a sensuous experience in and of itself. The content and the references are of high quality. On the down side, there are several repetitive passages throughout the book. Nonetheless, I recommend the book wholeheartedly. Also, as a companion piece, consider reading Kieran Egan's "The Educated Mind." Egan writes about the development of intellectual tools--somatic, mythic, romantic, philosophic, and ironic. Abram's covers the somatic and mythic tools quite well. Egan cover's the whole set at a higher level but with less focus. Together, the two books complement each other nicely.
D. Wesley
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on 30 June 2005
This is a difficult and fascinating book, exploring subtle and complex and ideas, not always convincingly. I found it deeply thought-provoking but was left yearning for more clarity, precision and depth of thought.
Broadly speaking the argument is that humanity has lost its intimate connection with nature, that this relates to the development of writing, and that it results in our modern capacity to disrespect and destroy nature.
In developing these themes the book dsiplays significant problems with its argumentation, its structure and its style. Together, I believe, these undermine its ability to do any more than pleasantly indulge already-committed environmentalists with muddy, half-baked thinking.
Abram develops fascinating ideas in probing the inner perspectives of cultures that have not lost their connection with nature. It was intriguing to get the beginnings of an understanding of what it might feel like to have such a different relationship with a homeland that one could almost read it, and how bereft one would be to move away from it. The connection with the development of writing is also imaginative and up to a point convincing. However, Abram is unfortunately distinctly weak at explicating subtle concepts and expressing nuances of feeling to the reader. Time and again I felt I half-grasped something that the author was muddily presenting through confused, slippery arguments. Time and again I was just not quite convinced, and just when a little more clarity was needed to help me comprehend, the author slpipped into poetic musings, seemingly abdicating explanation. The concepts of phenomonology in particular are extremely difficult. Abram is highly original in their application, but needs to be less vague.
The structural problem is the massive focus on the argument about the effect of writing on our perception of nature. This dominates the book in a way that ultimately cuts it off from its own context - i.e. may leave the reader asking 'so what?'. The context is mostly provided by a short and wholly inadequate final chapter which glosses discussion of consequences and implications. The argument about writing is also so long that it absolutely needs greater rigour and clarity, and willingness to address obvious counterarguments, to avoid being at times dull, repetitive and meandering.
Abram suggests towards the end that he doesn't want the book to be judged in terms of conventional rational argument, but rather as a story that can help us make sense of the world. I don't find this convincing. It is perfectly reasonable to question the limits of traditional rationality and critique its contribution to political and environmental problems. And it is great to present ideas in an imaginative, creative way rather than as academic philosophy. But in the case of this book it just doesn't add up: the lengthy invocation of writers such as Husserl and Merleau-Ponty left me feeling that I was undoubtedly being offered some kind of logical theoretical argument - but simply an unconvincing one. Rather than unifying theory and thought with the poetic, as many thinkers have done over the centuries, Abram sets them side-by-side in an awkward, jarring alternation. The poetic elements therefore feel like a stylistic indulgence added to soften the reading experience, to emotionally attune the reader and render them less critical of the flaws of the rest of the text.
Having said all that, I found considerable value in this book for the gems of originality in Abram's ideas, despite it being frustrating and labourious to read. And I also have an admiration for its audacity and ambition.
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VINE VOICEon 30 September 2011
I found this an extraordinary book; I would suggest that if you want to find books with the same sensibility (but very different otherwise) you might be looking at Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, Jung on archetypes and alchemy, the poetry of Keats and Coleridge, Novalis and Goethe, but this is an autobiographical account of his mystical-scientific experiences of the elemental presence of nature, of the movement of ants in a dance with the observer, of inhabiting the quality of wind and water.

For those interested, the philosopher Rudolf Steiner gave a lecture early in the 20th century in which he described the 12 philosophical worldviews (see Human and Cosmic Thinking), pointing out how each was seen by its proponents is the one and only way of knowing reality when in fact full understanding requires all of them. During this he specifically describes a mode of experience, which he calls gnostic sensationalism, the ability to experience through the senses the deepest essential truths of nature and the world, and I've never found a more perfect example.
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