Philosophical melting pot
Updated: 2012-10-30 09:35
By Mei Jia (China Daily)
US author Carlin Romano says what strikes him most about China today is how modern and energetic it is. Mei Jia / China Daily
In his latest book, literary critic and writer Carlin Romano has taken a bold attempt to overthrow cliches about Americans. Mei Jia finds out more.
To the surprise of most people, New York born literary critic and writer Carlin Romano claims in his new book that today's America is the most philosophical culture in the history of world. And he calls incumbent President Barack Obama the "philosopher in chief".
And like philosophical Americans, Chinese people are equally smart and practical, cherishing the problem-solving spirit as one of the strongest philosophical traditions in both countries, Romano says during his recent visit in Beijing.
"Both America and China are great cultures, with fantastic intellectual traditions in history and sparkling ideas," Romano says. "Both people believe in taking action rather than to sit still."
To Romano, who has been watching China closely from the other side of the Pacific, even dating shows which have been flooding China's TV are not on the opposite side of philosophy, but they present more material for philosophical thinking.
"When women on the shows ask men if they have apartments, cars, it makes people think what's marriage and love.
"And if a girl says to a boy that we're different because we live in different cities, and the boy answers we're not, we have the same values, it's just like the beginning of thinking about elements of philosophy in love," he says.
In his book, America the Philosophical, Romano expands the notion on philosophy beyond books or university lectures.
For example, he believes a concierge who stands and talks at the hotel gate for 30 minutes with a guest on social justice, can be a philosopher, if he speaks clearly and presents examples.
"It's about a way of thinking about the world, care for logic, evidence, open to criticism and argument, sense of bigger picture, sustained attention to philosophical problems," he adds.
Based on that argument, Obama, who read serious philosophy during his student days, grows up not being an angry person, thinks about many points of view and makes decisions in the context of larger principles, is therefore naturally the "chief".
Romano thinks his book is a bold attempt to overthrow cliche as not everyone agrees with his thoughts.
"My thesis is contradictory to the traditional way Americans view ourselves, and others view us as we're considered to be unphilosophical, care only for money."
In the page-long review on the cover of New York Times' Sunday Book pages, Anthony Gottlieb says the book "will not provide much comfort to declinists who feel the political and economic hegemony of the United States to be fading fast. But perhaps it will help a little".
Romano says the NYT gives his book unusual attention because its optimism offers confidence and it's the first big book - 672 pages - that he, a well-connected critic in the book business, ever wanted to write.
Based on 200 interviews that he conducted in his decades of experience in the American intellectual life, the book is "a high-speed tour of America's big thinkers" as Jonathan Ree puts it, vividly presented with anecdotes.
And Romano also keeps track of the new trends, like with mass media and cyberspace, and of usually marginalized groups like African-Americans, women, Native Americans and gays.
"America the Philosophical is like a dinner at a college dining hall with a favorite teacher, a man who has read widely, rambles a bit but likes to talk. A lot," John Kappes says in the newspaper The Plain Dealer.
Romano is indeed a reputable journalist-turned-lecturer of philosophy and communication lecturer at universities in the United States and Russia.
"Professor Romano engages his students from the beginning to the end of the class. He is very knowledgeable in everything from law to communications to philosophy," says Tiffany Pinkney, one of his students at University of Pennsylvania.
Born in Brooklyn, New York in 1953, Romano always travels with two business cards - one as a journalist and another as an academic.
Trained in Princeton, Yale and Columbia, he began his journalism career at the Washington Post, and has been critic-at-large of The Chronicle of Higher Education for 12 years.
A book critic for almost three decades, he was nominated as one of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalists "for bringing new vitality to the classic essay across a formidable array of topics".
But Romano did not come from a literary family. In fact, in his younger days, the love for books was considered improper.
"I come from ... a humble family," he says.
His Italian father met his Russian-Jewish mother when they worked together as waiter and waitress in a restaurant.
With a passion for books and ideas, 12-year-old Romano used to bike to used bookstores and always went home with several books. His father was not happy with his habit.
Later in his book critic days, he got 800 books a week on average and reviewed 10 to 15 every Sunday, leading a life surrounded by books.
"I wished my father, if he was still alive, could see that my life has become a life of books, and I could tell him that it is not bad to buy books as a child," Romano says.
Even though at times he gets tired of writing and meeting deadlines, he still loves books and cherishes his lifetime of writing about philosophy and American culture.
Romano lives in both Philadelphia and New York. He will make it back to Beijing in December to give some lectures at universities.
Contact the writer at email@example.com.