Sunday, March 6, 2011

Book Review: The Prophet

I love when books reference literature. Here’s an exchange I read a few weeks ago, as Pepper Cartwright sums up her feelings about her first, disastrous weeks as a Justice:

“As for embarrassment, I am way beyond that. On the other side of the wall of humiliation is liberation.”

Declan stared, “Kahlil Gibran or refrigerator magnet?”
~Christopher Buckley, Supreme Courtship

This exchanged made me realize something: the reason I usually enjoy those references is because I understand them. Getting the lit joke is part of my nerdy DNA. But not having read Gibran’s The Prophet, I wasn’t quite sure what Buckley was getting at. What’s a nerdy girl to do?

Well, making little headway with another book for Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge (which is still ongoing through the summer, and has no book limit, so check it out), I moved The Prophet to the top of my TBR pile. I’d read some reviews about this book, both positive and negative, and I really didn’t know what to expect. So I tried to go at it with an open mind.

The book consists of short essays on philosophical topics, related in the form of a discussion between the Prophet and the people of the city he is about to leave. The Prophet touches on the questions common to most religious traditions: love, work, sorrow, poverty, religion. What Gibran presents is basically a philosophy of kindness – kindness to yourself, kindness to others, kindness to the planet. His writing is gentle. His tone is caring. It’s easy to understand why so many people have loved this book. Originally published in 1923, it has never been out of print.

But I also understand where Buckley was coming from with the refrigerator magnet quip.

Gibran focuses on dualities throughout the essays. The aphorisms come fast and furious in this short text:

“To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam.”

“Of the good in you I can speak, but not of the evil. For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?”

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

You get the idea. Great stuff, but there comes a point of adage-overload that I reached about half-way through. And some of them are pretty abstruse:

“Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror. But you are eternity and you are the mirror.”
I’m still trying to work the physics of that one out.

Overall, this is a lovely book. I can see why it came from a Lebanese author: it celebrates the humanistic convergence of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, and Lebanon was blessed to have large populations of Christians, Jews and Muslims living together for so much of its history. I liked it, but it was a bit much as a book – it would have been smarter to read the essays one at a time, like meditations to start or end the day. Still, it’s a classic for a reason, and if you haven’t read it, you really should.

You’ll get the jokes. But you might also get inspired.

So I have finally added to my Middle East Reading Challenge total: I’ve made it to four. Thanks so much to Helen for hosting! I still want to finish an Israeli title before July, and any suggestions would be welcome!


  1. I love this book. I remember him saying something about letting your love be like a forest where the wind can move between the trees (instead of stifling one another). It was good advice me at the time because I was too attached to the man who later became my husband. Maybe loosening up a bit helped? I wish I could remember the quote exactly; it's so abstract in my mind I only remember the gist of it. But, this is a wonderful book of teaching.

  2. I think I found it, Bellezza:

    "Ay, you shall be together even in the silent memory of God.
    But let there be spaces in your togetherness,
    And let the winds of the heavens dance between you."

    I had highlighted that quote myself.

  3. This does sound like a book I'd have to read a little at a time so that I could reflect on what I've read. Great review.

  4. Thank you for doing another Middle East book. I loved Mornings in Jenin, which is set in Israel/Palestine

  5. Oh, how I loved this book of wisdom. I still have a copy after many years.


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