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by Joan L. Cannon

Reflections on Dying and Living
By Mark C. Taylor
Published by Columbia University Press; © 2009, Hardcover, 292 pp

It would be difficult, if not impossible to make an assessment of Mark C. Taylor's book Field Notes from Elsewhere without making it personal. Whether to call this engaging work philosophy, autobiography, psychology, history, or religion will depend on the reader and the time when it is read. The subtitle is Reflections on Dying and Living. The word order as well as the words are worth noting.

Dr. Taylor is Chair of the Department of Religion at Columbia University. He has written more than twenty books on an impressive number of topics from art and architecture to economics, philosophy, and religion. What he tells about himself, his life experiences from childhood through teaching, parenting, enjoyment, suffering, loving, and losing — and above all, thinking — lets his reader make repeated and necessarily flexible judgments from the first words to the last.  He forces a new consideration of whatever he addresses. He succeeds in making you uncomfortable, amazed, and humble.

While his self-awareness and erudition underline every entry, he manages somehow to show enough of a softer core to maintain sympathy and suspense. That last word encapsulates much of what can be taken away from these essays. Expectation (often seemingly without hope), uncertainty, anxiety, mystery, excitement are implicit in sentence after sentence. This is a book that is hard to put down, even though it is frequently not easy to read. 

Taylor is a devotee of oxymoron, paradox — to the point of occasionally taxing the patience of his reader, yet his careful logic and focused semantics redeem his pronouncements.

A note on the physical volume: this is a handsomely designed piece of the publisher's craft, but the choice of font was perhaps unwise. It is so light as to make the close reading (even rereading) demanded by the material more difficult than it needs to be. The photographs scattered throughout are by turns interesting, mysterious, and occasionally artistic. Without them, the book would probably be missing little more than an enticement to a reader who is afraid of too much dense text on the page, yet they often appear to be bait for the inquisitive to encourage a search for the reason for their presence.

This is a book to be appreciated far more by older readers than by young ones. Without a fair backlog of experience, it would appear too rarified, abstract, intellectual. In particular, themes of loss, of guilt, of death are pervasive. From the jacket copy and intimations in the early text, the reader learns that the author's perspective is influenced by his own brush with mortality. The "elsewhere" of the title arises from this event. From the razor's edge between what we know and what we absolutely cannot know and the coping with dread draws the reader to viewpoints often far from ordinary consideration, though no distance at all from what is vital to humanity.

The arrangement of essays is constructed over 52 days divided into 'AM.' and 'PM.' The subjects range from the everyday to the exceptional, from childhood to 9/11, gardening to cancer, concrete to abstract. Every entry depends heavily on perceptions based on contradictions. In a discussion of the Word (as in John:1) and Vocation, we read, “If there is a vocation without one who calls, then perhaps silence is the Word that must be spoken.” (Note capitalization.) There are several sections with different subheadings that deal with parenting and the fragility of not only life, but of its promise. “Perhaps the only hope that is honest is the hope that simultaneously affirms both its impossibility and its necessity.” Nearly every piece contains this kind of tension and contradictory balancing of ideas.

Seldom can you find a writer more conscious of diction. Frequent references are made to the classical origins of words; Greek and Latin are foundations of much of the writing. Reference is made particularly to works of Kierkegaard, Hegel and Martin Luther. Here is a man educated (and who undertook to educate his children) in a tradition rapidly going out of style except in the most respected of universities and religious institutions. This may alienate some readers, but will endear the book and its author to others.

Two familiar quotations from the Greek might sum up the burden of this work: Know thyself (Sophocles) and In the beginning was the word. (John:1:1). 

The subtitle is Reflections on Dying and Living. The last two pages are poetry on the experience of dwelling Elsewhere, between these polarities.

©2010 Joan L. Cannon for


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