Book review: The Plague by Albert Camus

The PlagueThe Plague by Albert Camus
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Can’t think why this book is currently popular again.

In the town of Oran, Dr Bernard Rieux notices rats are starting to die in their thousands. When his building concierge dies suddenly, Rieux urges the authorities to act on what appears to be the early stages of a plague. Obviously, they listen to him and the book ends there. Or more accurately, the plague takes hold of the town and people start dying in their hundreds. Rieux and his friends try to help the best they can.

I’ve read very little of Camus’ philosophy. His most famous contribution is “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is (whether to commit) suicide” which is a tad offputting. I’m sure the guy pushing the rock up a hill would agree with me on that.

But after watching a recent video from Carlos Maza, I decided to give The Plague a read.

In many respects, The Plague captures most of Camus’ philosophical arguments in a narrative form. It is also widely acknowledged as a WW2 allegory, specifically around the underground resistance movement against the Nazis. And the reason it is getting a lot of interest currently, aside from its title, is how much of the events of the novel sound painfully familiar.

Not that this novel is prophetic so much as an account of humanity. Which says a lot about how much we suck at learning from our mistakes.

I was roughly halfway through reading The Plague when I found myself reminded of a critique of philosophers. Professor Moeller suggested that analytic philosophers were failed scientists and continental philosophers were failed writers or poets.

Much of The Plague had me thinking of Camus as the failed writer doing philosophy. There’s a dry and detached style to the writing that is at odds with the story being told. And as a philosophical novel, I thought it swung between poignant and pointless at times.

Although, as I said above, I was going in thinking of Camus’ work as a bit offputting. Not to mention, whenever I think of Camus I’m reminded of this comic:
https://existentialcomics.com/comic/180

Existential Comics Original

The Plague is such an optimistic and timely book to read during a global pandemic.

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Book review: Sartre – Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

Sartre: Philosophy in an HourSartre: Philosophy in an Hour by Paul Strathern

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So little time to give meaning to life.

The Philosophy in an Hour series is written to give a brief overview of a philosopher’s life, some key points about their work, and a recommended reading list for more insights. This Jean-Paul Sartre instalment covers the famous existentialist, some anecdotes about his life, particularly as it relates to his open relationship with Simone de Beauvoir, and the barest of insights into his contributions to philosophy.

Having started down the road of philosophical learning with Soren Kirkegaard several years ago, I was well overdue to read some Sartre. I’m not sure this is the place I should have started. While it was conveniently available from my local library, it was somewhat lacking.

While I do appreciate the biographical aspects that appear to be part and parcel of every philosophy course and textbook, this is where Strathern starts to inject his views on Sartre. He continues to do this in his thoughts on Sartre’s work.* When Bertrand Russell does this it comes across as witty, snarky, and probably deserved. When Strathern does it he comes across as childish and distracting.

I think my biggest criticism was that this book felt lacking in substance and critical insights. I was probably after something a little more substantial as an overview, along the lines of a university lecture. For those wanting a short biographical overview with a few ideas sprinkled in, this would probably hit the mark.

* E.g. He mockingly describes Sartre’s existentialism and his insights. Strathern describes Sartre as a brilliant thinker, but also a pretentious windbag. One way he did this was by saying Sartre spent 1933 in Germany studying the ”phenomena” of existence. That was the year Adolf Hitler came to power, but Sartre was too busy pondering existence to take much notice of reality, a condition that stayed with him for the rest of his life. An easy criticism to make but also an ignorant one if you understand that Berlin was a mecca for thinkers, cultures, and artists until after Hitler came to power.

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