Book review: A Good Life by Mark Rowlands

A Good LifeThroughout the years, few oeuvres have enriched my intellectual life as much as the works of the Welsh philosopher Mark Rowlands. At some stage, we are all confronted with the question of what makes life worthwhile, how to make the time we have on this planet meaningful. Unfortunately, not enough of us ask how to live in such a way as not only to enjoy the journey, but simultaneously do as little harm as possible to our fellow travellers, whether they be other humans, animals or the environment. We all muddle on. Rowlands does not claim to have the answers, but his attempts at approaching possible conclusions are fascinating to engage with.

Some of Rowlands’s books are written for experts in his field of knowledge and are not as easily accessible as his bestsellers Running with the Pack: Thoughts from the Road on Meaning and Mortality or The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness (still a personal favourite which belongs to that wonderful category of books I claim as life-changing). His latest, A Good Life, is also written for the general public and comes with an intriguing twist that will thrill all passionate readers, even more so if they happen to be writers as well.

Unlike Rowlands’s other books, which are clearly non-fiction and often include autobiographical elements, A Good Life is actually a novel. It is a philosophical inquiry into what constitutes the titular good life, but it comes in the form of dystopian speculative fiction. In 2054, while South Florida is quickly sinking into oblivion because of the rising sea levels, the fictitious character Nicolai finds a manuscript written by his late father and annotated by his mother. He decides to complete it with his own comments on the narrative his parents had left behind, never certain how much of their text is fiction and how much is fact. The book seems to be telling their life story by tackling such crucial issues as abortion, compassion and empathy, marriage, animal and environmental rights, euthanasia, and death. The discussion of these topics is at times unsettling, as it shakes up many widely held beliefs. At the same time, anything that Rowlands writes is always full of delightful humour and reassurance that not all is gloom and doom. There is hope and real goodness in the world.

It is not too late to recognise how we are all connected; not only to each other, but to the planet we call home. Compassion is one of our main tools. It is fuelled by the imagination. A Good Life as a whole makes a stunning case for the “colossal power” of literature: “We are all just words somewhere.” When you reach the final pages of the book, the different strands of the narrative intertwine to reveal something quite simple, and yet it feels as if a miracle had unfolded right in front of your reading mind. That is the beauty of a Mark Rowlands book.

Rowlands on lit

A Good Life: Philosophy from Cradle to Grave

by Mark Rowlands

Granta, 2015

Review first published in the Cape Times, 5 August 2016.

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