Utopian Dreams Paperback – 3 Jan 2008
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'A painfully honest and heartfelt exploration of what community means today.' -- Guardian
'An unconventional travel narrative ... this is an idiosynctaic book; improvised yet thoughful, full of touching portraits.' -- Daily Telegraph
'Densely argued, well written, witty, repaying much thought.' -- Sunday Telegraph
Utopian Dreams, from Tobias Jones - the bestselling author The Dark Heart of Italy - is a different kind of travel book, exploring the meaning of community and solitude.
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He is coming at the project as one who has led a privileged and conventional life and at one point he says: "I had always, until now, assumed that one could only challenge 'the revolt of inferiority' by being superior." He comes across as honest and he manages to mix well with the people that he meets, but he is from a comfortable very middle-class background and I don't think he has any real intention to live long-term on any of these communities, but rather just to visit as a tourist.
The best chapter is when he's staying at PIlsdon in Dorset - a place that impresses him the most of all the communities he's been to. There is a mix of personal experience and philosophising in the book, which is at its best here.
Overall it's a very personal and partial journey, mainly in Italy, into community living, and which constantly comes back to religious ideas. The only communities he visits in the UK are a a Quaker village for wealthy retirees in York, and a refuge for wayfarers with addiction problems in Dorset. Although he writes well and there are some interesting ideas in here, the scope of his journey is very narrow.
He certainly spreads his net widely, visiting communities in Italy and England. The communities reviewed include the new age community in Damanhur, the orphanage of Nomadelfia, a Quaker old age community, a cooperative in Palermo and a community for down and outs in Pilsdon.
All except the first, receive a favourable review. Far from these communities being a cop out, he sees them being very innovative as they have had to overcome a lot of resistance and perform a very good service to those in need.
The author finds a different type of Christianity, often muted, that is the wellspring of these initiatives. There are some interesting thoughts e.g. `liberty can't be the liberty to do whatever one wants. Its only when one has a life project, when one has made choices that settle with clarity the end you have in mind, that you're truly free.' Another saying is ` you often get cornered by people who introduce themselves as charismatic healers: for me, the best healing is simply manual labour.'
This book, with its unusual study of communities, deserves to be better read, not only for its in depth study of communities, but also for the deeply engrossing study of genuine Christianity, all too brief, that is its source. The book reaches a surprising conclusion.
I would have liked to have heard more of his wife's reactions to these communities to give the book a slightly richer flavour: this is my only quibble.
While the author aims to compare and contrast what we understand by the term, `community', and its many manifestations, I felt his ambition was not fulfilled in the examples he chose to live in. It must be challenged as to how he could fully immerse himself in said `community' when he took his wife and child everywhere. Surely this provides its own ` community within'. The tendency to restrict ones expeditions to Italy and the UK, also limit his experiences, as do his research beforehand that already created presumptions that seem hardly challenged.
I'm unsure whether this was a `pseudo travelogue'. If it was, it failed. If it was an investigation into the concept of community, it may have some valid points, though points where not succinct or accurately illustrated to conclude anything in particular.
This said, I found some experiences intriguing and begged further examination. Unfortunately, this was not he form the book took.