Sunday, December 23, 2007

A great book for holiday, or any time, gift-giving

Simply Living

Authors Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein present an unconventional pose on the backcover of their recent book, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar . . . Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel December 23, 2007)

It's often difficult to find the perfect gifts for people we love. My brother's 65th birthday is rapidly approaching and for weeks I've puzzled over what to give him.

Thanks to my local library, where I'm constantly browsing the racks in search of a good read, I stumbled upon the perfect present, Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein's entertaining tome, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar . . . Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes. (Abrams Image, 2007)

The authors, whose 50-year friendship began when they were philosophy majors at Harvard in the late 1950s, combine their love of musing with the desire to amuse. After college, Klein went on to pursue a career in comedy, writing material for such legendary jokesters as Lily Tomlin, Flip Wilson and David Fry, while Cathcart worked in health care, including many years spent managing a hospice for AIDS patients.

Although their post-college lives diverged, the friends remained close. They even vacationed together. Every year they bade their wives and children goodbye so they could spend a couple of weeks thinking and talking about projects. The concept for Plato and a Platypus emerged during one of their annual get-togethers.

Divided into 10 chapters with titles such as Metaphysics, Logic, Ethics, and Relativity, Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar uses humor to explain difficult philosophical concepts in entertaining and easy-to-understand ways. Consider this offering under the chapter titled Ethics:

Armed robbers burst into a bank, line up customers and staff against the wall, and begin to take their wallets, watches and jewelry. Two of the bank's accountants are among those waiting to be robbed. The first accountant suddenly thrusts something into the hand of the other. The second accountant whispers, "What is this?" The first accountant whispers back, "It's the fifty bucks I owe you."

The bank robber story is an example of "situation ethics" in which the ethical thing to do in any situation depends, as Cathcart and Klein explain, "on the peculiar mix of factors in that situation." The authors propose that, "paradoxically, however, it is sometimes by ignoring the specifics of the situation that we create the opportunity for self-serving action." That's what happens in the bank robber anecdote.

The 143 jokes and occasional cartoons in Cathcart and Klein's 200-page study make learning fun. Neither completely a joke book nor an educational text, this one-of-a-kind mini-book (the page size is a compact 5 by 7 inches), is suitable for men and women of all ages and backgrounds. While some of the jokes are on the edge of bawdy and others dance around political correctness, a significant number fall into the completely clean but still hysterical category.

One such ditty presented to illuminate the relativity between finite time and eternity goes like this:

A man is praying to God. "Lord," he prays, "I would like to ask you a question."

The Lord responds, "No problem. Go ahead."

"Lord, is it true that a million years to you is but a second?"

"Yes, that is true."

"Well, then, what is a million dollars to you?"

"A million dollars to me is but a penny."

"Ah, then, Lord," says the man, "may I have a penny?"

"Sure," says the Lord. "Just a second."

It didn't take me much longer than a second to realize that Plato and a Platypus is a special kind of book with an infinite capacity to entertain and illuminate. With a price tag of $18.95, it's also affordable.

If you can use a bit of laughter -- and who couldn't? -- or, if you're struggling to find the right gift for that hard-to-please someone, consider this handheld version of a Harvard philosophy class.

What happens when you mix corny jokes, one-liners and vaudeville humor with some of life's greatest lessons? You get an extraordinary read you'll want to share with as many people as possible. It's a funny-bone tickler with teeth. And that's no joke.

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