I And Thou by Martin Buber

A few years ago, my friend Beck Low recommended I read I And Thou by Martin Buber, specifically the Walter Kaufmann translation here. Originally a German book published in 1923, it was first translated to English in 1937. Kaufmann’s translation was published in 1971 by Touchstone. Beck is big into philosophy and said this book was excellent.

So I tried.

The Book

The introduction to this book was very long, but really hyped it up. This book will change my life! It was philosophy meets self-help.

When the book started, I was into it. Buber seemed to be saying that life is all about human interaction, real meaningful interactions.

After a few pages, though, the writing devolved into a sort of stream-of-conscious rambling that presented words as if he had put a philosophy textbook in a clothes dryer and let the phrases fall out in random order onto the page. It was one of those books where you realize, while you’ve understood all the words in their own right, the last page was nonsense. Had I read the pages in a backwards order, or scattered them arbitrarily, it would have made just as much sense.

Buber himself said, as mentioned in the introduction, that he often did not understand his own writing. When asked for clarification on various parts, he stated that while he didn’t know what it meant, it would be wrong to change it, because it was written in the excitement of the moment and probably meant something then.

So, in other words, jumbled up nonsense.

i and thou martin buber

It’s said that Buber purposely convoluted his writing so the reader would be forced to slow down and really try to understand it, thus making sure they really focused on it. This is something said proudly by his fans, as if obscuring your point to make it less accessible to the readers you’re trying to reach is somehow a positive thing. Perhaps it’s a sort of camraderie one gets after surviving a hardship with others.

The fact that Buber couldn’t simply write a clear thesis suggests not that he was some great writer devoted to making others understand, but rather that he was an amateur scribe with some decent but half-formed ideas that struggled to take shape as he crafted them. So to disguise the book’s incompleteness, he doubled its weight with meaningless sentences and called it deep.

The Book Was Bad

It’s not that I’m just some philosophical dunce. I’ve especially studied art philosophy and logic, and while most texts are never easy, they do give up their meanings without too much effort.

Buber’s I And Thou refuses to crack, perhaps because there is no real meaning behind most of what was written.

Many reviewers of this book say it changed their lives, and I can only imagine that since there is no content in this book, they projected whatever they were already thinking about into it, and took it as a revelation. I’m glad it helped them, but this book is a waste of shelf space for me.

Sorry Beck – I tried three times over the years to get into this book, and had the same experience each occasion. I And Thou? More like, Why (did I read this?) And How (was I ever supposed to?).