3 out of 4 stars
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Becoming Nobody: A personal account of one man’s search for self-knowledge is a philosophical journey in search of truth by Richard Branch. Written between 2008 and 2018, the book is 318 pages long and consists mostly of material lifted from emails the author exchanged over the period with his friend, Ana Hildebrand. The pair shared their thoughts on the ideas and writings of an eclectic mix of writers, philosophers, and thinkers from across the ages.
The author was born in 1952 and raised in New Hampshire. While it seems he was always the kind of person who questioned the nature of things, it was in his mid-fifties that he embarked on a sustained search for answers to the kind of existential questions that have troubled saints, scholars, philosophers, poets, and psychologists for thousands of years. Branch was initially inspired by the teachings of G. I. Gurdjieff, who preached a path of spiritual development known as the ‘Work’ or the ‘Fourth Way’. Branch explains that the core of this teaching is the belief that: ‘we each have an unconscious Personality and a conscious Essence. The problem is how we take our Personality or self to be all there is to us, usually oblivious to our better-knowing and authentic Essence.’ Through self-observation, Gurdjieff believes, this can be corrected.
While Gurdjieff provides the starting point for the author’s quest for enlightenment, he doesn’t succeed in furnishing Branch with all the answers he is seeking. Much of the book charts the development of the author’s own thinking on these matters. His writing documents his attempts to scrape away at what he views as his false persona, to uncover the real self that lies beneath. In doing so, he runs the risk of obliterating the false Rick Branch only to discover that there is nothing underneath; he runs the risk, in fact, of becoming nobody.
The further I got with this book, the more I enjoyed it. I found the early chapters, when the author wrestles with his notions of the ‘false self’ and ‘essence’, to be a bit slow. In Branch’s defense, he is documenting his personal journey and, therefore, cannot be blamed if he finds himself tramping across terrain that has been well-mapped by others. By the middle and later stages of the book, the reader has come to know Branch better. We get personal glimpses of the author through the anecdotes he shares with us: how he struggled with (and overcame) his fear of public speaking; how he interacted with his mother and twin brother at different points in his life; his attempts at impressing women on the beach; his decision to move to Florida on his retirement. Branch also shares some of his political views. All these little snippets help humanize the man behind the keyboard and make the reader warm to this self-effacing character.
I didn’t like some technical aspects of the book. The text is justified on both sides, but the author (or typesetter) does not seem to make use of hyphenated word breaks, preferring to break a line early to accommodate words that aren’t going to fit. This gives a ragged appearance to some pages, in my view. There are also some errors scattered around the book but they are not overly distracting; I suspect that the book has been professionally edited.
I’m giving this book 3 out of 4 stars, deducting one star for the errors I found. It will appeal to people who enjoy thinking about the meaning of life. There is nothing of a sexual nature to offend here. There are a few curse words dotted about the book, but they number less than a handful. Readers with religious faith should only tackle this book if they can deal with having their beliefs challenged. Likewise, people with a conservative political outlook may find some of the views expressed here hard to read.
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