Tag: philosophy

Books, Reflections

Why You Should Start a Commonplace Book

I wrote this post the week of New Year’s 2022. It was originally one of my New Year’s resolutions. But like most New Year’s resolutions, things did not work out like I planned. I have been thinking about working on a commonplace book for a while, but I have put it off. I finally started cleaning out my room this week after I got home from college. I decided that it was time to do some spring cleaning. I am living at home after college. My room is a mess, so I decided it could be a good idea to clean it out a bit. My biggest problem is that I have a ton of books and notebooks and not much space to store them.

My closet, bookshelf, and desks are so full. I am going through college papers and notebooks. I realize that I probably shouldn’t keep them all. I don’t have the room, and I probably won’t look at them as much I imagined that I would.

But it is a bit sad to throw them away. I am afraid of forgetting everything that I learned in college. I think keeping these notebooks and books is my way of remembering. And why should I throw them away? Students pay a ridiculous amount of money to attend university and to sit in a classroom and take notes. Why should I throw these notes out? They’re worth so many paychecks.

But I save too much. I don’t have room for every single worksheet or notebook in my room. Many of them I will never look at again. I mean, there is Google. I can research Finite Math and review Chemistry, but what about the humanities? I feel like by not keeping every single note that I took in class, I am missing out. What if I forget all these writers and philosophers that I read and love?

How do I hold onto my notes without keeping every English worksheet? How do I remember the specific quotes that I underlined in my textbooks. I needed an answer to these questions. So, I decided that place where you can keep all the meaningful things you learned in one place. The commonplace book, ta da. It figures that I would find a solution to my college concerns by remembering a project I did in a philosophy class.

What is a Commonplace Book?

So, if you haven’t heard of a commonplace book, you may be very confused. I first heard of a commonplace book not from the internet, but from a philosophy professor that I had at Grove City College. The book was a project for my philosophy 101 class. All we had to do was write 45 quotes from the works we read in class in a notebook. Sounds simple enough and an easy way to get points, right?

We wrote a few quotes from every reading into the notebook. It wasn’t too hard of an assignment, and I was grateful that my professor chose this project for a few reasons. Keeping one of these books is an easy way to improve your grade in Philosophy 101, and it is also an easy way to grow a little bit wiser every day.

So, how does one create a commonplace book? And why do I plan to spend my time writing quotes that I find in old books? If that sounds boring like it did to me at first, I’ll ask you this:

Have you ever read a great quote in a book that you never wanted to forget? Have you ever read a quote that you loved not for the beauty of the words but for the message? The message was so powerful, you wanted to remember it and not just keep it as a pretty wall poster. The words you write in a commonplace book can provide guidance, wisdom, and advice for a difficult time or be read as an everyday reminder. There have been many passages that I have wished to keep with me.

For years, I did not know how to save these quotes and remember them. I have collected phrases in journals, made Pinterest boards, and saved posts I’ve loved on Instagram. I remember in high school–I loved copying my favorite scenes and quotes from books into my journal. I’ve been collecting words, sharing them, and eventually losing them my entire life.

When I started college, I took notes in class and added stars to my favorite quotes. I was an English major. I marked them down because my professor told me to and because I would likely be tested on them. But I also knew I wanted to come back to them someday. Looking back, I’ve realized that after tests and papers are done, I rarely return to those passages that meant so much to me at the time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t care about what I learned or that the quotes no longer applied to my life or understanding of the world, they did. But life can be stressful and busy sometimes, and you forget to look back on the things you’ve learned.

Another problem I had with saving quotes was that I never knew how to sort them. In my philosophy class, it was pretty easy to find quotes to include in my notebook. We read many authors with words worth holding onto, looking to for guidance, and rereading over and over again. We studied the works of Plato, Dante, Aristotle, and Boethius.

Something about this guy is worth remembering, and not just his glorious beard

I can go back and read them again and learn something new every time. My professors often said that good authors are worth rereading and learning from, time and time again. My one professor mentioned that he reread Aristotle’s Ethics every year and reread Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol every Advent. I would like to try that; I haven’t yet, but I feel like you could learn quite a bit from rereading the same book every season.

And just like I plan to reread great books, I also plan on returning to these commonplace entries in the future. I do not have to reread the entire book that day with a commonplace book. I can simply look back and find quotes on the topics that I’ve been thinking about. I could Google these quotes too, but I feel like I don’t remember things as much when I Google.

I discover something magical when I look back on a quote by an amazing writer. I honestly had no idea how beautiful the writings of these authors were until I read them. They always sounded like old, boring, dead people. I kind of fell in love with the philosophers. We read about Aristotle’s definition of perfect friendship and Boethius’ words about how we can’t trust fortune or rely on external circumstances alone to make us happy. Reading them made me think of things in ways I hadn’t before.

Putting all the quotes together in a commonplace book is a great way to find those topics and return to those quotes again and again. You can flip to a page in your commonplace book and find a specific topic and author.

Commonplace books are great at helping you remember these quotes and the impact they have had on society. If we look at topics like philosophy, politics, and religion, our culture has been influenced so much by the writers of the past. We are influenced by the past more than I realized. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. included several references to philosophers of the past in his Letters from a Birmingham Jail.

I was amazed how he was able to bring together the words of other authors and connect their ideas to his. How does anyone remember so many quotes?

That is why the commonplace book is a nice shortcut. All of these quotes and phrases are kept together and organized. You don’t have to memorize every point, at least not now.

What to Include in a Commonplace Book

Commonplace books entries don’t have to be from just philosophers and academics. You can include quotes from anywhere you find inspiring, novels, poetry, the Bible, Koran, or any religious text, from a movie, tv-show, or song. Even a street sign.

You can use quotes that you’ve heard in real life too. I learn so much about the world from family, friends, professors, and acquaintances. There is something about people that makes us want to quote each other. My sorority has a group chat where we quote each other and send it to the group. Most of these quotes are super funny, random, and out of context. But they can also be wise and insightful.

In the case of the commonplace book, I always look at the context. So I do not misunderstand what the writer intended to say. Jeremiah 29:11, “for you know the plans I have for you” for example, is not meant for a 21st century reader but for the people of Israel. Shakespeare’s “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.” is not nearly as deep as people think, and the term “greatness thrust upon them” is an innuendo. So be careful what you quote for inspiration.

For this book, I look for quotes that say something accurate about human nature or offer wisdom about how to live a good life.

Not all of your quotes have to be older either; they can be modern or from a song you heard last week. I would pay attention to the media you enjoy and look for things that you can learn. There are plenty of quotes that I find deep at the moment. James Arthur’s “Empty Space” has been stuck in my head for at least a month. Maybe I will put some of the lyrics in a commonplace book, or maybe not. We sometimes find genius in unexpected places.

It is good to have authors from different periods, cultures, and places. If you keep a broad scope, you will discover universal truths. You can find great wisdom from any era too. I like to keep learning about the world I live in–not just where I am.

When I read something I want to remember, it gets lost–amongst all the other ideas swimming around my brain–like all the emails I read, the things people say in real life, my homework assignments, and articles I read online. It feels like too much. I also have a million notebooks, so most of my quotes are scattered in multiple journals. Then I lose it all. So when I learned about commonplace books, I decided it was worth giving it a try.

Organization

So, how do I even organize a commonplace book?

I have heard that there are different ways to organize them, but I decided to follow the method my professor described. I find this method easier, but if you find another method that you prefer, go for it. I organize mine alphabetically by the category of a quote. I make a page or so for every letter and the first vowel of that letter.

For example, I have a page for AA and the next page is AE. I vary the number of pages for each letter depending on how many words you can make for each letter and vowel. I make up categories as I go along and put categories on the pages corresponding to the alphabet. For example, let’s say that I’m writing down a quote about humility. I would go to the page where I wrote “HU” and would add the category humility under it. All quotes that are about humility go there.

I write the quote under the category. Then I write the name of the author, the name of the work, and the page numbers under the quote. If I want to go back and read a whole section or reread the work I referenced, I can find it easily.

This is Your Commonplace book- don’t just listen to what I’m doing

You don’t have to structure your commonplace book as I did. A commonplace book is yours to write in and reference, so you should structure it a way it works for you. You could use a physical journal like I did or make a digital one on a word document. I love writing quotes down to remember them. You could even have multiple commonplace books. You could use one for quotes you like from books and another for words of wisdom. Not all quotes offer good advice, but I like them anyway and it could be fun to keep track of them.
The main reason that my professor assigned this and why I’m writing this is so that I can learn and grow in virtue and understanding. They can help me become the best version of myself. They can help me grow as a person. In our internet age, I have noticed how quickly trends fade; I want something that I can hold onto, and becoming more like people you admire isn’t the impossible task that I once imagined it was.


Patience, honor, bravery, justice, benevolence, temperance, wit (Aristotle said wit was a virtue, I approve), and other virtues improve with practice. I fall into the problem of seeing virtue as abstract rather than concrete, and sometimes I find it easy to forget my moral code or forget that these are important.


Writing them down and reading them helps me remember. I can remember what is right. I can also read sections about wealth and remember that it does not matter the most. Money is the means to an end rather than the final end. I want to learn and remember how to be a good friend and care about others around me.

You certainly don’t need a commonplace book or to study philosophy or ethics to live a moral life, but I find writing down quotes and looking at them again is a helpful tool. When I feel stuck in my thoughts or in the midst of a moral dilemma, I can look at what people say about these things. Writing in a commonplace book is a great way to remember quotes and bits of information. These people are authors who I love reading and want to keep with me.


I would highly recommend starting a commonplace book if this sounds interesting. A commonplace book is a way to cultivate wisdom, love and, appreciation for words that will last a lifetime. Making commonplacing a regular habit can be a helpful way to keep your favorite writers with you. It can motivate you to go back and reread your favorites and seek out new material. One of my worries about leaving college was forgetting how much I loved reading, especially philosophy and literature. If this sounds like something that sounds even remotely interested in, I would recommend giving it a try.


Tip: Whether you mark an entry every time as you read and discover something new, or spend seven minutes a day or three days a week commonplacing, building it into your life is the best way to ensure that it doesn’t end up under your closet. I know it has been a temptation of mine. Even if you forget about it for a while, you can always come back. There is no time limit or rules for your book.


This year, a few of my goals are to maintain a schedule to cultivate a good sleep, exercise, and eating habits; cultivate relationships and grow spiritually, and find a job after graduating in the spring. I wrote most of these goals down in January, and I’m still working on them. I also hope to grow in wisdom and learn about lives outside my own. So, commonplace book, here I go. I will not save every worksheet from Finite Math and Shakespeare, but I will keep this book with me.


I hope that I will look back and remember old entries. I wonder what I will think when I look back at the quotes I wrote down when I was younger. I’d love to write more about this in the future once I get into collecting more quotes. Have you ever heard of or tried creating a commonplace book? If you’ve started or plan to start one, I would love to hear about it and plans for this year.


What do you think about a commonplace book? Are you a fan of spring cleaning? Do you tend to hold onto everything you receive or take a minimalist approach? Let me know in the comments!

Shows

The Absurd Worldview of Mr. Peanutbutter: Let’s talk about Toxic Positivity

As I’m about to graduate college, I’ve been thinking about BoJack Horseman again. I literally love this show so much, probably because it makes me think about people and the patterns they find themselves in.

I also find it interesting that the show includes characters of all different age groups. BoJack is in his fifties. Princess Carolyn is around 40, and Diane is a few years younger than her. Sarah Lynn and Todd are thirty. Hollyhock and Penny are a teens and then young adults. Several characters go through big life changes and experience growth. But I’m not sure that works for everyone. BoJack struggles to make lasting changes over time, but if there is anyone who fails to change over time, it is Mr. Peanutbutter.

I have been thinking lately about mental health and BoJack Horseman and about how Mr. Peanutbutter is the perfect example of toxic positivity. Toxic positivity is a term that I’ve seen everywhere. There are even toxic positivity memes out there. We have all heard the usually well-meaning advice to just stay positive and choose to be happy every day. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

And what is toxic positivity, exactly? According to Medical News Today, Toxic Positivity is “is an obsession with positive thinking. It is the belief that people should put a spin on all experiences, even those that are profoundly tragic. Toxic positivity can silence negative emotions, demean grief, and make people feel under pressure to pretend to be happy even when they are struggling.”

Don’t get me wrong, looking for things you are grateful for and appreciating the people around you are good things, but that simply isn’t the answer for every life situation, especially the painful parts of life. Ignoring life’s tragedies and pain for the sake of positivity is deeply toxic. But before we dive into toxic positivity, it is important to understand Mr. Peanutbutter as a whole.

He is one of those characters that I love to hate, or more accurately, he is one of those people who annoy me, but I can’t help loving them a little anyway. He is funny, and he is always so happy. But his happiness is a strange one. He is willingly oblivious, which seems like a quirk at first. If you think about it though, he’s actually pretty harmful—even if he isn’t causing harm on purpose.

Mr. Peanutbutter’s worldview is actually one of the most complexly thought out ones on the show. When I first saw Mr. Peanutbutter, I figured he was one of those characters who never thought of big questions about life and just enjoyed being rich and famous. After all, money is quite distracting; life is distracting. Not everyone constructs a worldview or decides to understand their place in the world. I thought maybe Mr. Peanutbutter was happier than BoJack because he never thought about the world and just enjoyed the good stuff. Boy, I was wrong. He has thought of his actions and what it means to be in this world. In one episode, he tells Diane:

 “The universe is a cruel, uncaring void. The key to being happy isn’t a search for meaning. It’s to just keep yourself busy with unimportant nonsense, and eventually, you’ll be dead.”

Wow, I can’t quite agree with you on that, bud. I understand that we can’t figure out the answer to every question or solve the world’s problems, but wow. He also uses the word unimportant nonsense, which indicates that there are important things to do with your life. He could be trying to help others and help with issues he does care about. He does care about the people close to him—Diane, for instance. And he’s not in a position where he can’t help others be happier and safer.

As an actor, he has a lot of money. He already recognizes that it won’t buy him happiness or make his life perfect, so why doesn’t he help the less fortunate? Diane, in contrast, is all about saving people. She knows that the world is full of pain and harm, and she wants to help other people. But she breaks down when she realizes she isn’t making lasting change. That’s totally understandable. The world is full of hurt, but I feel like our best efforts are worth it. I agree with Diane’s decisions at the end; she does help people in a new way. But there is an alternative worldview and way to look at things. We don’t have to give up, and we don’t have to fix everything.

So, I wonder if a middle ground between Diane’s activism and Mr. Peanutbutter’s denial would be recognizing that you can’t fix everything and that bad things will continue to happen. But do good anyway. Mr. Peanutbutter also, in deciding that there is no point in helping, ignores the privileges that he has that others do not. Few people are able to distract themselves with “unimportant nonsense” without worrying about bills, health, and other life struggles. Even if you take up the view that life is all nonsense, why not allow others to enjoy nonsense the way you do? That brings me to the next point, the episode, “The Face of Depression.”

The Face of Depression

I find it interesting how when Mr. Peanutbutter is labeled, The Face of Depression, BoJack and Diane are completely skeptical. He’s so happy all the time: how can he possibly be depressed? Diane is diagnosed with depression, and it sounds like BoJack has it as well from what we see.

But I wonder why they have to be so skeptical that their friend has depression. Even though Mr. Peanutbutter is generally a happy person, that doesn’t mean he can’t suffer from depression. Anyone can have any mental illness regardless of their personality or the face they put on in public.

But Mr. Peanutbutter doesn’t have depression. The show says he does not, and that is partially why he works as an example of toxic positivity. He is absurdist in philosophy and deep into toxic positivity. Now, when we hear the term positive, we wonder, what is wrong with that? Is there anything wrong with being happy and having a good view of life? Is it wrong to be an optimist and to see the glass is half full?

Well, frankly, it depends. Toxic positivity refers to downplaying any emotions that are not positive.

Of course, we all want our friends to be happy and we want ourselves to be happy too. We don’t want them to be going through hard times or to feel bad. When we feel good about life, we want other people to as well. That is a normal feeling and a human one. But happiness isn’t something we should expect out of other people. No one should have to pretend to be happy when they are feeling miserable. I get his ignorance, however. I personally do not have depression, and I can only imagine what it would be like for others.

I understand that it can be hard to understand why someone’s external circumstances seem so good on the outside, but they might be unhappy. Take this conversation between Mr. Peanutbutter and BoJack. Mr. Peanutbutter just asked BoJack if he is jealous of Mr, PB because he is married to Diane.

BoJack Horseman No. Of everything. Everything comes so easy for you.

Mr. Peanutbutter Oh, and it doesn’t for you? You’re a millionaire movie star with a girlfriend who loves you, acting in your dream movie. What more do you want? What else could the universe possible owe you?

BoJack Horseman I… want… to feel good about myself. The way you do. And I don’t know how. I don’t know if I can.

On Mr. Peanutbutter’s end, it sounds like BoJack has every reason to be happy. Shouldn’t these good things, love, and career success make him happy?

The two of them end up reconciling, and I’m not sure if Mr. Peanutbutter understands BoJack in the end or not. I’d say his worldview makes it hard for him to understand people. Mr. Peanutbutter, because he sees the world as meaningless, doesn’t recognize that others think differently than he does. If life is about doing silly things, why doesn’t everyone go with the flow and enjoy them? Nothing has any inherent value or meaning, and if it doesn’t matter–why not have fun?  

This is why he and Diane clash. Diane doesn’t like large parties and being in the spotlight, but Mr. Peanutbutter just assumes she’ll love it. It is fun for him, so why doesn’t everyone else want that? As an introvert, I can relate to Diane. She’s awkward at parties and doesn’t feel comfortable in a large group of strangers.

But Mr. Peanutbutter never tries to consider her perspective because it doesn’t matter. He sees almost all parts of life as things to embrace. Unlike BoJack, he is willing to take any role or follow any scheme, no matter how silly, cliché, or even downright harmful it is. Birthday Dad, a knockoff of BoJack’s show, and an app that later enables sexual harassment are never a no for Mr. Peanutbutter. He goes along with whatever comes his way. There is something to be admired in going with the flow and accepting challenges or when life doesn’t look what you expect, but Mr. Peanutbutter takes it to the extreme. He is utterly thoughtless, and his moral code is weak. Maybe that is why he is so popular while running for office. He cares about niceness and friendliness, which BoJack lacks, but he also doesn’t look beyond the surface level.

He refuses to listen and look, and see any deeper meaning in life.

Toxic Positivity in Real Life

I found this gif when I was looking for online quotes. This is extremely harmful. Being sad is a normal human emotion that we as humans feel. Ignoring your emotions will be harmful in the long run.

I don’t think that belief that the world is meaningless is the inherent cause of toxic positivity, though it certainly can lead to it. I have heard about it in various subgroups. People who are passionate about their jobs or about the opportunity to study in college can fall prey to toxic positivity. I’ve seen this mentality amongst Christians, even though Jesus showed a wide range of emotions and wasn’t exceedingly positive. He cried and got angry and was pretty human and he validated people’s emotions and didn’t pretend sadness didn’t exist.

If that’s the case, I don’t get why we all shouldn’t be like that. God has given blessings and there are good things in the world, so we should appreciate them. Every day is a gift, there is a beautiful creation and there are the joys of coffee and time with friends. I don’t disagree with that, but creation can also be terrifying and horrific. There are hurricanes and tsunamis and nature is frankly, a wild beast. While I agree being thankful and focusing on blessings is important, we don’t always feel happy even with the good things in our lives.

One instance I can think of during college was a situation with academics. In my English classes, I read fantastic books and listened to great lectures. But does that mean I’m not going to be stressed that I have to read 200 pages for one class by next Thursday in one class and 60 pages in another? No way.

If a friend is stressed about school, it is tempting to say to them, “But we have it good here. Our classes are amazing and the books we are reading are profound and beautiful. We have good friends here and our professors are helpful and kind. Classes are fun, why complain if they are hard and you feel anxious? Just enjoy them.” Now, saying that sounds incredibly dumb. College is stressful. Heck, life is stressful. Why should we pretend like it is not. Just like it is absurd to convince our friends to be miserable when they are happy, it is absurd to convince our friends to be happy when they miserable.

Instead, we should listen to people and validate their emotions. Let them let the guard down a little and don’t be afraid to talk about how you’re feeling if you’re upset or something is bothering you. If you feel academic stress, for instance, I know that sometimes a lot of people feel the same way but are a bit afraid to say it. I like x aspects of school, but I’m struggling with x. Or it bothers me when x.

No matter how good things appear on the outside, let yourself feel your feelings. Then learn about them. Understand them. Talk to a counselor if you feel like it could help to have someone else help you understand yourself more.

Toxic Patterns

I think that one of the people that Mr. Peanutbutter hurts the most from his actions is himself. He jumps from wife to wife and doesn’t have any stable foundation. He keeps up a cycle of denial, and that can’t be the right way to live. He also has been deeply sheltered from anything “bad” in the world. His parents raised him on a farm and never taught him to be empathetic or emotionally intelligent. They stunted him.

Toxic positivity does the same thing. It stunts us. It tells us to deny, deny, deny when bad things happen to us, and when life exists outside that bubble of contentment that we’ve created for ourselves. Whenever he faces a challenge, he just moves on to the next thing. He doesn’t reflect on his experiences, and he repeats the same toxic patterns. Bad parts of life exist, and we should learn from them. We should live with them and acknowledge them. Otherwise, we might make the same mistakes. Associating a negative emotion with a certain choice can help us avoid it. For instance, Diane feels disappointed when Mr. Peanutbutter does a big gesture. Instead of recognizing that and seeing it as an opportunity to learn more about his girlfriend and be a better boyfriend, he just moves forward like nothing happened.

His constant invalidation of others’ emotions is pretty terrible. And how are we supposed to learn and love ourselves and the people around us if we do not understand them? If we sort all life’s events into the category of good, there is no opportunity to recognize wrong.

But I can’t just critique his toxic positivity without realizing how it works with his philosophy of life. Mr. Peanutbutter thinks that nothing matters, but it kind of does. His running for governor, for instance, impacts real people around him. To Mr. Peanutbutter, why not run, it sounds like fun. He’s rich, he can do whatever he wants. But Diane admits that he wouldn’t make a good governor. But she doesn’t tell him. Mr. Peanutbutter is never told no, so he keeps doing whatever he feels.

If we go back to that original quote, where he asks BoJack what more could he want, I think Mr. Peanutbutter is jealous of BoJack just like BoJack is jealous of him. Horsin’ Around was a thing before Mr. Peanutbutter’s House. There is also Diane. I feel like a part of him noticed that Diane and BoJack connected emotionally in a way that he can’t with Diane or with any of the women he dates really. But he doesn’t understand himself enough to fix it. He starts dating younger and younger women, and he is never required to understand any of his wives.

Of course, Mr. Peanutbutter is a dog. Dogs are loyal and loving but not always understanding. They like doing different things, and they don’t see any inherent meaning in their actions. At least, I’m assuming they don’t.

But none of this is to retract my points. Humans have a natural craving for meaning, and we experience emotions deeply and they hurt. It is tempting to shove our emotions down and pretend we’re fine. It is tempting to say “at least….” when someone shares bad news or says their day was bad.

But that doesn’t make the pain go away. In fact, it lets us suppress the pain and forces ourselves to put on a happy face for the person who asked us. Mr. Peanutbutter is a dog, but it is okay if he is a sad dog sometimes. A self-aware dog would be nice to see too.

Have you heard of toxic positivity or watched BoJack Horseman? What are your thoughts on the subject of Mr. Peanutbutter? Let me know down in the comments below.

Links:

https://theconversation.com/how-to-avoid-toxic-positivity-and-take-the-less-direct-route-to-happiness-170260

https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/toxic-positivity

Books

The Fight Against Sameness: Why The Giver is Still Relevant and How it Mirrors Plato’s Philosophy

Pros

  • Good introduction to dystopian fiction
  • Well-constructed worldbuilding
  • The pacing feels just right- it kept me hooked and I finished reading in a few days
  • The relationships felt genuine
  • It isn’t black and white
  • Affirmation of love (family, friends, romantic), showing a wide range of emotions, the beauty of nature, and individuality
  • Connects to Plato’s philosophy in an intriguing way

Cons

  • Somewhat unrealistic- I can’t picture this community existing for as long as it has in real life

Over winter break, I decided to return to a book from my youth. It brings back simpler times, times before I had to think about questions like what job should I get or what classes should I take in my final semester. Instead, the questions were more: how would I overthrow a totalitarian government? Is the reality I experience true or a product of a carefully manufactured utopian community I was born into? I miss reading and asking those questions.

Just by looking at the cover, I feel like The Giver is covering some real philosophical stuff. Trees and men with long beards remind me of wisdom. Both also remind me of Duck Dynasty, but this isn’t based on a TV show, thankfully.

It all begins with Jonas, a twelve-year-old boy who lives in a closed-off community where everything is perfect, or so it seems. It has been perfectly created so there is no fear, pain, or accidental pregnancy. Everyone lives in identical houses, food is delivered to families, everyone rides bicycles instead of cars, and a spouse is assigned to them, based on compatibility, by the Elders. They also choose their careers in the December of their twelfth year. Why do the Elders have so much power? No one knows, but they watch you and learn what will suit your talents.

If you haven’t heard of this novel or missed it on your seventh-grade syllabus, The Giver is a dystopian novel written by Lois Lowry in 1993. It is one of those stories that I vividly remember reading in middle school. I’m not sure if I finished the book back then, but I saw the movie, and the ideas sealed into my mind.

Jonas’ community sounds a little tempting, like, where can we sign up? There is no hassle or stress at picking a job, no interviews, no troubles conceiving babies, and no one has to worry about finding someone to marry. Imagine not having to worry about getting into a car crash or being late to work because of morning traffic. We also don’t have to worry about air pollution from cars. Riding bicycles everywhere sounds like a blast and great for the environment as well.

Imagine a world without pain, where all our stress could be solved by sitting around the table with our families and talking about our feelings. These parts sound nice. Jonas has a family and two good friends- an outgoing and fun-loving boy named Asher and a quiet and sweet girl named Fiona. They have fun and ride bikes together and seem to have a typical childhood. So, it isn’t too bad.

After childhood, there is work, and people get great pleasure out of their jobs because they are chosen for them by the Elders. The Elders study us and figure out what works best with our talents, so they really know what will make them happy. Jonas’ father, for example, is a nurturer. He loves taking care of babies and gets so much joy out of seeing their small faces.

But of course, this is a dystopian novel. The community has good elements, after all, it is trying to be perfect and safe, but there are also parts that make me grateful I have to apply on LinkedIn.

There are no books, TVs, video games, or even stories in Jonas’ community. People are only allowed to read rule books. This sounds like absolute misery. There is a book that tells people about their ancestors, which they can go into town and look up. Family history cannot even be compiled privately. People cannot create things of their own. It all belongs to the community. In The Giver, no one ever goes to a play or reads a novel. They just work and talk and ride bikes. It sounds pretty boring.

The stories they tell are the ones they experience in their lives, but they all seem to run together. They are all the same. Whenever Jonas’ family talks about their day at the dinner table, the story usually goes like this: a person at work or school broke the rules and it bothered them. They tell the family they made a fist out of anger and then the family reassures them by giving reasons why people would break the rules. They are told to understand the other person’s actions and let go. This happens every day. You would think that Lily would learn, but she just keeps telling the same stories day after day.

This isn’t to say that the families are terrible. The scenes with the family unit, as the book calls them, were often some of my favorite scenes to watch. Jonas’ family cares for each other deeply. I particularly enjoyed Jonas’ father. He is very kind. The family eats dinner together every night, and they make fun of the community’s rules. Not everything is robotic. They know the system is screwed, on some level. It takes forever to learn Jonas’ parents also are there for him when he is nervous about the ceremony of the twelve.

While there is no pain, there is also little joy. All emotions feel stifled and simplified. It just feels like there could be something more. The community values the precision of language. People apologize whenever they do something wrong, and the other person has to forgive them. Happiness does exist, but it is contained, labeled, and structured within what the community finds appropriate. Imagine developing a crush on a classmate, and then your parents tell you to start taking a pill every day.

I’ll talk about the positives for a minute. I enjoyed watching Jonas meet The Giver and learn about him. The scenes of them together are pleasant and well written. I feel like I’m reading a well-written answer to a writing prompt that asks the writer to describe one of the senses to someone who hasn’t experienced them. Lowry shows joy in experiencing the little things and spending time with nature and with friends and family. The relationship between Jonas and The Giver is another great part of the book.

I found it kind of weird that Lowry decided to capitalize words like “Laborers”, “The Old”, and “Ceremony.” Oh no! The Old, Laborers! What could those words possibly mean? How could society ever say their names out loud? I guess calling them “The Old” stigmatizes them, but it also doesn’t make much sense logically. It does make sense since people are generally made to work and be active participants in the community. Younger and older people are seen as unimportant. Also, calling people by their professions shows how people are sorted into a group and isolated from other professions.

I read a few GoodReads reviews, and overall, lots of people love this book. The Giver introduced me to dystopias, and I learned to love seeing characters watch the world around them unravel. It alludes to The Matrix, 1984, and Brave New World. I didn’t notice this until I got older, but they are just like the Matrix, with the pills. It is also unique enough that I wanted to keep reading. It didn’t feel too cliche and it was a great introduction for my middle-school self to question the world around me.

It made me think about what is most important in life. Sameness, keeping life contained and perfect isn’t the answer. We are not the same. A life without joy, hope, love, sadness, and pain is not a life worth living. Although life can be painful, it also can be good. While it doesn’t feel like it could happen, the book has a certain relevance that any timeless novel possesses. It stresses the importance of values and expression and it could be read ten years ago today, or fifty years from now, and someone could still learn from it. The Giver is a story about a closed-off community more than anything, and no one wonders if there is a chance to make everything better until someone starts to see how good life could be.

The story is about the fight against sameness, against the world falling under a single government, a single way of living. The characters aren’t even aware that they have another choice. It is heartbreaking when you get to the end.

If you haven’t read The Giver before, I’d recommend checking it out! It is an intriguing story and I want to learn more about Jonas and the world he lives in. There are also three more books in the trilogy, which I may check out.

Interesting things I noticed (minor spoilers below)

The structures they live in are also incredibly rigid. Families consist of a mother, father, son, and daughter. You have to go through the Elders for everything, and you can’t choose to Technically parents have to apply for children. Women named birthmothers are the ones who have all the babies. So, no one is allowed to procreate. They aren’t aware that they can have children without the government or marry someone other than who the elders assign them. Couples technically can choose not to request children from the state, and you are allowed to be single. The government will deny a spouse or children to those they deem not good enough. Even if you aren’t released, the government can still strip your rights. Jonas, our twelve-year-old protagonist, feels sorry for a character who was single and without children. As a child, he already is judgy. While singleness and childlessness are allowed, they are undesirable options rather than simply options.

The Giver gives Jonas memories about the life that people lived before the community was formed. Jonas’ first memory contains colors, and he realizes that the world as he knew it was in black and white. I’m not sure how possible this could be in real life, but it is a powerful image. As soon as Jonas discovers colors, he is fascinated by them and never wants to go back.

It is weird that twelve-year-olds basically train to be adults. These kids aren’t allowed to be adolescents. The community teaches them not to want things or have desires beyond what the state eventually grants them. Children under nine want bikes and, those under twelve might be excited to get a job, but afterward, everything is supposed to be perfect. Wouldn’t even a job that suits your talents–get boring? Why hasn’t anyone else questioned this system?

Also, the notion of The Giver seems dangerous. Why would you let one person keep all the memories of the past? Isn’t this abusive, forcing one man to bear the world’s pain at a time? It seems like it is sufficient to destroy all the memories. After all, they barely ask The Giver for advice in the first place. They are asking for a rebellion if they let one person know information that they don’t know. After all, he could simply release all the memories, hide out in the woods, and leave everyone else to process the past.

Releasing people was heartbreaking. I guess it shows our duality. Jonas’ father could be so loving towards Gabriel but he also kills a newborn. I feel like he had to know what he was doing on some level, but he didn’t see he had a choice. Dystopian novels always seem to show how easily we’ll do something we’d never do if we’re following orders. It is terrifying. It is just what they do and no one has been taught critical thinking. They don’t even think to rebel.

I kind of wish that the girl who was The Giver before Jonas was still alive. Her story broke my heart a little. She would have been so cool. Also, it would be nice to have a cool female character along with Jonas. But, oh well, plot… I suppose.

Gabriel was adorable. I loved watching him with Jonas and his father. I loved how Jonas gave Gabriel some of the memories of the past. I might have to read the next books in the series to find out what happens to him.

Relationship to Plato’s Theory of the Forms

Plato said that the objects of this world are merely shadows of the larger Forms. He theorizes that we knew of the Forms before our birth, but we have forgotten them. What are the Forms? They are a perfect, eternal version of the objects and feelings we experience in this life. I’ll give an example. Imagine looking at a sunset and thinking that it is beautiful. Plato would argue that the sunset is not perfectly beautiful, it is lacking something. He would say that looking at the sunset points us to the idea of Beauty, but somewhere, there is a form of perfect beauty. The sunset merely points us towards a perfect Beauty.

The theory of the forms also implies that we had some sort of life experience before birth. The Giver seems to allude to Plato’s Allegory of the cave, which describes a man who is chained in darkness. He is chained with other prisoners against a rock and they are watching shadows on the walls of the cave. He breaks out of the cave and starts to see the world beyond which is lit by the sun. But, before he can see the sun, he must see the world lit by the sun. Looking directly at the sun, the source of all goods would be too intense to understand. He then learns that the shadows on the walls were mere reflections of the real world. He looks at the grass lit by the sun, and the trees for example, and appreciates their beauty.

So, how does someone get out of the cave? Well, Plato believed that everyone was born ignorant and that it took a philosopher-king to teach others about the beauty of the Forms. The philosopher-king would be the one to lead the ignorant populace out of the cave and into the light.

Jonas’ Education and Plato’s Journey

Jonas goes on a similar journey to Plato’s cave. Like Plato, he realizes that everyone around him is ignorant and living in darkness. He learns that there are deeper emotions than the enjoyment he has joking with friends and family.

Jonas is a chosen one. He occasionally sees flashes of how the world is supposed to be. He sees flashes of color and is chosen to receive memories of the past world. Jonas is assigned the job as the giver. He meets with the previous giver, who passes down the memories of how life used to be.

The world of The Giver is horrifying. The current giver, an aging man is required to hold all the memories of life before all the joy and pain. So, this man isn’t the just only person to remember suffering, he has to remember the suffering of many generations that came before him. I’m not sure if the giver holds the memories of the entire human history or if it is as far back as they can remember, but the poor man must have so much emotional stress.

I don’t understand the committee. A man with this knowledge could easily just escape the community and leave the people with the memories. That is all it takes, for The Giver can wreak havoc in one night. Then he could leave the community behind and forget the painful memories he experiences. On the committee’s part, this feels pretty stupid. Luckily, the giver cares about the community, likely because he has seen pain and suffering and doesn’t want them to suffer. Jonas imagines leaving the community behind but realizes it would be a bad idea. He loves his family and friends. Oddly enough, the community relies on the giver’s empathy to sustain them.

The giver is like a philosopher-king. He slowly gives Jonas memories of life before the community began. Jonas first rides on a sled and experiences joy for the first time. The exhilaration is nothing like he has experienced before. These memories. The experience of riding sled points to a greater emotion of joy.

When Jonas first discovers colors, he is attached to the things of this world themselves rather than their greater significance. For example, he has this conversation with The Giver.

“Of course. When you receive the memories, you have the capacity to see beyond. You’ll gain wisdom, then along with colors. And lots more.”

Jonas wasn’t interested, just then, in wisdom. It was the colors that fascinated him.

He is focused more on the sensory experience of color, which is completely beautiful, but he doesn’t understand the larger significance. After years of seeing without color, his eyes are opened up to so much more. It is not bad that he doesn’t long for wisdom yet, because his attraction to colors only points him to the most important things.

The best example of this is the scene when Jonas sees a family of parents, grandparents, and children on Christmas opening gifts. He associates the feeling with warmth and comes to realize that the experience is love. Then the book hits me in the gut. He asks his parents if they love him, and they tell him that love is a generalized word. While they are proud of his achievements and enjoy his company– they do not love him. They do not know what the word means.

Emotions are not just words, they need to be felt. Most of the memories that the giver gives Jonas contain few words. Jonas rides on a sled, takes a boat ride, gets sunburn, and watches a boy die in the army. Technical, exact language can describe those experiences, but sometimes feelings need to be felt.

Jonas realizes this at a typical family dinner conversation where Lily says she is angry at another student who broke rules at the play area. Her family comforts her with words.

“But what Lily felt was not anger, Jonas realized now. Shallow impatience and exasperation, that was all Lily had felt. He knew that with certainty because now he knew what anger was. Now he had, in the memories, experienced injustice and cruelty, and he had reacted with rage that welled up so passionately inside him that the thought of discussing it calmly at the evening meal was unthinkable.”

The feelings people experience in the community are merely shadows of the feelings people are truly capable of. Plato is all over this book. The major difference is that Jonas’ world literally exists because the government wants to keep the world the same, but Plato’s Forms are abstract.

Have you read The Giver before? Have you ever returned to a book that stuck with you when you were younger? What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.