Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Reflections on Mastery

Every reader knows that some books are alive. When one reads such books, he has the weird feeling that they are also reading him. The words of those kinds of books leap off the page. They grasp the reader’s thoughts, demanding them to justify their existence and utility.

Books like that don’t allow the reader to merely read from some detached place. He must either throw them down or enter into a struggle with the ideas they launch at him, like missiles.

For me, The Beginning of Wisdom was like that. At first, Leon Kass wooed me. For the first hundred pages, I meandered through the words, rather bored by his long winded articulation of the obvious: “God is not human, human is not animal, God is not the universe, male is not female, but creation exists as a unity that consists of difference and distinction.”

Well, that’s safe enough for the Bible student who wants to know more about Genesis. He can keep reading from a sense of duty and smug self-satisfaction that he is smart enough to read such a book.

Then, unexpectedly Kass goes on the attack. Midrash becomes a weapon. He forces the reader to defend his grounding in modern secularism. “What if Genesis really is a word from beyond,” he seems to shout? “If it is, why do believers as well as unbelievers live as though it is not?” And, finally, he forces one to give an answer to Genesis itself. “If Genesis is so much fiction, well then just say so,” Kass implies. “If it is not, your life must change.”

After reading Kass, it becomes impossible to hold Genesis at arm’s length – or the rest of the Bible, for that matter.

Well, this blog is not about Leon Kass. (However, if I woo a single reader into his web I will be delighted.)

This blog is about Robert Greene, who probably would not think much of either Genesis or Leon Kass, though I am not sure about that.

Greene is a humanist, in every sense of the word. He studied the classics, which makes him dangerous to begin with. (I know this is true. My son-in-law is one of those strange people, the kind who mutter on and on about syllogisms, logic, Euripides, literary chiasms and the like. When you argue with them, you will understand why the Athenian government demanded Socrates to drink hemlock.)

Greene, who knows about what happened to Socrates and has evidently decided to avoid his fate, offers his ideas in everyday language and tells amusing and terrifying stories to prove his point. Once you get that point, he has moved on to a safe place.

To tell the truth, I have always avoided Greene’s books. The few times I causally glanced through them, I didn’t find a reason to keep reading. But then my friend, Dan Miller, highly recommended Mastery. So I wrote it down and went on my way.

Later that week, I clicked the magic button at Amazon.

After a month of walking by the book, I realized it was shouting at me, like the kid in Augustine’s garden, “Pick it up. Read it!”

The forward is a test. If you read the entire forward, Greene will allow you to read the rest of the book. If not, he will declare you unworthy and not entrust you with what comes next; which is, in a word, wisdom.

In story after story about people who made a great mark on the world, Greene drives home their common qualities: willing and unwilling mentors, humility coupled with courage to pursue the truth however uncomfortable, willingness to stand alone if that is what is required coupled with high levels of social intelligence that allows one to wade through pettiness without getting trapped, learning from adversity and boredom, accepting tediousness for long periods of time if that is what is required to master one’s craft or skill, a steadfast commitment to one’s path and passion to the point of obsession and so forth.

This book is not for those unwilling to be challenged and changed. It is not a sweet little story; it is a tornado. It will rip into your guts and churn. If you read it, every page, until the end, you will stare at the wall for a few days.

In some ways, it is rather like John Irving’s, A Prayer for Owen Meany. That book also haunts. It makes one ask whether or not he has a vocation, or is merely finding a series of occupations.

Mastery is not for those who don’t care about things like that.

But if you have already decided that you do have a vocation, or at least that you wish to discover yours, this is your book. Greene will give you a map – if he determines you intend to really use it.

I am going to rank Mastery in the category with Man’s Search for Meaning (Victor Frankl), The Beginning of Wisdom (Leon Kass), God in Search of Man (Abraham Joshua Heschel), A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving), and the Unabridged Far Side Collection (Gary Larson), as books that have helped me find my way.

If you read this blog, you're the sort of person who will profit from Mastery. Treat yourself. Buy it. Then start reading. And don’t stop until you finish.

If it helps you make millions of dollars, do the honorable thing and pay my way for a month in Italy and one in Greece, so I can immerse myself in what I like doing: mastering languages while eating healthy, Mediterranean foods. 

While the picture here has nothing to do with Robert Greene or Mastery, it has something to do with my mood, ambition, and intrest and, according to Greene, I must remain obsessed with that if I ever intend to master my field. 

1 comment:

Christopher said...

I'm about halfway through now. It's speaking to me very deeply.