Posted by: Nathan | August 23, 2008

Two Reasons to Read Life of Pi

Editor’s Note: Looking over my book review posts, it seems that I almost ineluctably prattle on for too long about a book many have already read. Thus, I’ll try to keep my reviews shorter and more focused. Good literature is far more complex for a simple book review to reduce into a few words.

Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi is an extremely well-known book, and, as such, I won’t go in depth about all the inter-workings of the book nor examine all its merits (which are many) and faults (which are few). I’d rather give you two reasons to read this book if you have not.

1. It’s a good story well told. Do not underestimate the power and joy of a good tale in the hands of a gifted story-teller. Martel’s story of an Indian boy crossing the Pacific in a lifeboat that happens to have a tiger in it is enjoyabe. Don’t be fooled by the fable-like description: this is not a children’s story. Martel explores all sorts of suffering and existential questions as well as religion. In fact, the reader is told early in the author’s note that this is “‘a story that will make you believe in God'” (x). Whether it is such a tale or not is up to you, dear reader, but even if the book lacked all the far-reaching vision and essential questions of existence, it would be worth your time.

Think of it this way. All author’s work within the limitations they give themselves in a story. Some writers give themselves enormous subjects so they can write without fear of running out of things to say (Tolstoy); others keep their fictitious world small (Flaubert). Good authors will make good use of either, but it seems to me that it would be harder to write an engrossing novel without a large world to explore. For the bulk of Life of Pi, Martel keeps his reader engaged using only Pi, a tiger, a boat, and a vast, empty ocean. “What about all that existential stuff you were talking about earlier?” you ask? It largely comes in the first and third sections. The middle of the book is a simple story written well, which is something of intrinsic value.

2. It makes you reconsider your worldview. I won’t take this too far. You can read this book and end up with the same beliefs with which you began. However, you will have re-examined certain issues, especially that of belief. I had the ending of this book ruined by something I saw on TV, so I will refrain from passing the misfortune to you. I will say instead that at the end of the novel, Martel makes you evaluate the work in a unique way that has greater implications:

‘These things don’t exist.’

‘Only because you’ve never seen them.’

‘That’s right. We believe what we see.’

‘So did Columbus. What do you do when you’re in the dark?’ (294)

The novel would be good without the forays into philosophy, but it’s even better because of them. It’s an engaging and delightful book that’s not difficult to finish.

If you’ve read the book and are looking for my take on the ending, read on. Otherwise, wait to read it yourself; you’ll like it better that way.

——————–[SPOILER WARNING]————————

I definitely believe the tiger story over the more traditional (and gruesome) alternative Pi gives the two Japanese investigators at the end. Why? I’ve never struggled to believe in miracles, although the alien fanatics are hard to give credence to. You can argue that Pi’s story is too minutely detailed to be made up on the spot, but of course the entirety of the tiger story is incredibly detailed as well. Why do we in the Western world cling so desperately to outdated Enlightenment modes of thought? Science cannot explain everything. But, like Pi suggests, perhaps I believe the tiger story because I like it better.


  1. Interesting! Thanks for making me want to read the book.

  2. […] Two Reasons to Read Life of Pi […]

  3. I had completely the opposite reaction to this book. I didn’t think the first story was told well; it was both tedious, unnecessarily gruesome and totally implausible. The philosophy was absolutely dreadful. The second story, on the other hand, was much better, more taut, much more believable. My worldview was confirmed; modern literary fiction has nothing useful to say about religion or philosophy.

  4. Fascinating response, Aardvark. I’m interested to hear why you think modern lit has nothing to contribute to religion and philosophy. What do you consider “modern?”

    That the second story is more plausible is, of course, the point. The question is, are you willing to believe something that is outside of your own experience? If not, isn’t that a severely limited worldview?

    I agree that there was an unnecessary amount of gruesomeness in the book. Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

  5. Sorry it’s been so long; I just found this again.

    “The question is, are you willing to believe something that is outside of your own experience? If not, isn’t that a severely limited worldview?”

    I am sorry, I don’t understand what you mean by this. “willing to believe” is an odd expression. I don’t think it is possible to “will to believe”. One either believes or one does not believe. Willing doesn’t come into it. It’s redundant.

    So leaving out the “willing” what does it mean to “believe something outside of your own experience”. If I haven’t experienced it, how would I ever know it. I think you mean something more like “experienced first hand”. I agree that if one only believed what one experienced first hand, you wouldn’t be a normal functional human being. We all believe things not experienced first hand, thats a normal education.

    But part of any good education is an appreciation of critical evaluation of evidence that teaches us to pick the most plausible of alternative explanations. Those that fail to learn this useful skill end up being eaten by tigers.

  6. HI Aardvark
    I found your comments really interesting and am left with some questions.
    given that perception plays a huge role in experience:
    is there always only ever one explanation for something?
    can we always presume to know what that is?

    As a one time student of literature(which taught me critical evaluation of evidence in far more depth than my science lessons ever did though I was proficient at both) I was introduced to the idea of willing suspension of disbelief. From practical experience I note that when I am willing to do this (e.g. when I go to the theatre the action play is both fact and fiction) then I become aware of things outside of myself and inside of myself and the relationships between them that change me. I am not under any illusion that the play is ‘real’ except in as much as it is happening now and I am experiencing it. It’s reality lies in the fact it is a piece of theatre but that doesn’t mean it isn’t truthful or without meaning.

    Belief, as far as I can see, is always a choice. Even when we actually experience things there are always choices about what we believe about the experience. as so much of our information about the world is taken on trust it would be nonsense to suggest otherwise. have you ever had an experience of something that later it seems that you either dreamt it or imagined it? I have. Accurate to the last detail (or at least it accords with other people’s perceptions of the event). Yet I wasn’t there and couldn’t have known about it from anyone else. Does that mean it wasn’t true? What should I now believe about it?
    Thankfully life doesn’t seem to be quite as black and white as you suggest. If it were I think I’d rather be happy to be eaten by tigers. At least it would be over quickly.

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