Monday, July 9, 2012

Introducing Rousseau by Dave Robinson

Does exactly what the title promises
This is the first book I’ve read in the Introducing series, and for the most part I was pleased with it. For those not familiar with the series, the Introducing books provide concise “CliffsNotes”-type summaries of complex philosophical and scientific subjects, combined with comic art. Not so much graphic novels per se, the books feature one or two paragraphs of text per page along with a black and white illustration often superimposed with dialogue or thought balloons.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a fascinating character who captivated Europe by subverting the rationalist Enlightenment with the revolutionary idea that civilization was actually bad for humanity. This book offers an abbreviated biography of Rousseau, interspersed with summaries of his works. The majority of the text is devoted to in-depth discussions of the novel Émile and the political treatise The Social Contract. Dave Robinson does an admirable job of explaining Rousseau’s philosophical concepts clearly and concisely. This book is by no means a Rousseau lovefest; Robinson is quite critical of Rousseau’s ideas and if anything I wish he had been a little more complimentary, as it might give the reader a better idea of why exactly Rousseau was so admired and so influential. In this account Rousseau comes across a little like a kook who had no business being buried in the Pantheon. Nonetheless, the writing is lively and engaging, providing about two hours of entertaining and educational reading. I was less impressed by the art, which I felt was not particularly well executed and did little to enhance the text. I can appreciate how difficult it must be to find graphic representation for abstract philosophical ideas such as these, but since that is the whole purpose of existence for the Introducing series, I expected more from the graphics.

This book, of course, is by no means a substitute for reading the actual works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I approached this book with the intention of answering two fundamental questions: 1) Do I really want to read Rousseau? 2) If so, what work(s) do I want to read? Upon completion of this book, I feel those questions have been adequately answered.

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