The Wonder Box, by Roman Krznaric

This book was a birthday present from my lovely friend  Rachel. It purports to be an exploration of various themes of life (death, belief, empathy, etc.) and how various cultures have treated them through the years. There are some fascinating concepts included – some familiar to me, like the various definitions of love in ancient Greece and some not, like the funeral customs of various Asian/African/Oceanic cultures that he mentions.

I suppose there’s not really a lot to say about it, though. Most of the arguments come down to communication and empathy. Our modern culture, according to Krznaric, doesn’t communicate as well as other cultures used to, in part because we don’t put ourselves in the place of others the way that our ancestors did. If we could do that – re-establish our sense of empathy and start talking about now-taboo subjects like death – our culture would be better in some way. More open, at least, and we as individuals would probably be happier. He’s not exactly clear about how it would be better for society as a whole.

Some of the concepts he brings up are very interesting. I already knew about the five kinds of love as defined by the ancient Greeks – I grew up Christian and the concept of “agape” was a common topic of sermons and studies, especially when discussing 1 Corinthians 13, and I have also studied ancient Greek as a language. But one that I didn’t know was the ten senses idea. There’s the five “physical” senses, but some neurologists are coming back to incorporating senses like balance, direction, and rhythm. The odd thing is that, in English at least, we talk about them as senses (with the word “sense”) but don’t include them in our lists of the senses.

It’s a fine book, but a bit imbalanced. After the chapter on empathy, the point of each chapter became a little bit obvious and repetitive: communicate and think of other people more. Once that was established, I was really hoping for more discussion and comparison of each of the different cultural aspects, not just mentions that could almost have come from National Geographic articles – good mentions but not the depth or connections that I wanted.

I did like it; it just wasn’t as culturally informative as I was hoping. As a sort of lifestyle/self-improvement guide, though, it’s great, and I’ll be keeping it around to dip in and out of for quite a while.

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