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If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers Paperback – March 23, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his latest, author and philosophy teacher Bowen (A Journey Through the Landscape of Philosophy) has a nifty concept that's unfortunately derailed by an arch tone and a strong, if tacit, atheist subtext. Using popular bumper sticker slogans as a lens to explore philosophy, Bowen comes across some interesting questions-"What happens if a horse and cart runs over a chicken and egg?"-that he doesn't seem fully willing to explore; indeed, taking a cue from bumper stickers themselves, Bowen seems all to willing to run through his ideas as quickly as possible: "To put the cart before the horse and first divulge the solution, the chicken came first." Though they're perhaps meant to dazzle, Bowen's slaloming through philosophical concepts feel hurried, an attempt to convince readers he's right rather than foster thought. Bowen's book also suffers from anti-religion bias, which he never acknowledges outright but makes clear in repeated (and sometimes highly dubious) claims: "To update the scorecard tally: The Numbers Killed in the Name of: Religion: 1 million give or take. Nothing: 0." Further, virtually no theologians are mentioned; one bumper sticker, "Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy," isn't even attributed to its proper source, Martin Luther. Bowen's concept is certainly a clever way to draw in laypeople, but his hubris and narrow-mindedness is a good way to turn them off. Illus.
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"A witty little book that explains how, and why, people tell the world what they're thinking from the pulpit of their bumper."  -- USA TODAY 

"Imagine speeding along the freeway while your driver, Ludwig Wittgenstein, dissects and reassembles the bumper-sticker "wisdom" on passing cars. That’s the kind of trip it is to read If You Can Read This."—Tom Cathcart and Dan Klein, authors of Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar
"In the sense of being pregnant with meaning, this book has a baby on board."—Christopher Hitchens, author of God Is Not Great
“Readers may find themselves involved in fender benders once they realize how much fun it is to think about the messages in bumper stickers and start tailgating in order to read and analyze them. A fantastic contribution to philosophy as it occurs in the real world.”—John Perry, co-host of the nationally syndicated Philosophy Talk, professor emeritus of philosophy at Stanford University

"If you love twitter (and even if you don't), you're going to love Jack Bowen's insightful and hilarious romp through the pre-twitter world of bumper sticker sloganeering. On every page I had two reactions: (1) a vigorous horse laugh, and (2) a curious 'uh, I didn't know that.' Humor and insight: what more can you ask from a book? Sex. Yes, it has that too. Read this book."—Michael Shermer, Publisher of Skeptic magazine, monthly columnist for Scientific American, author of Why People Believe Weird Things

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Random House Trade Paperbacks; First Edition edition (March 23, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812981057
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812981056
  • Product Dimensions: 5 x 0.5 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,117,011 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 21 people found the following review helpful By Phil Greenburg on March 23, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I'm not much of philosopher...or much of a reader, for that matter. Yet this book gets an easy 5/5. It's surprisingly easy to read for how deep some of the topics moves along at a very digestible-but-entertaining pace.

Also, the vignette-like structure makes it really easy to pick up and put down. However, I found myself saying "oh just one more" whenever I finished one, so maybe not super easy to put down.

I highly recommend this book for...
- philosophy students
- intellectually curious kids
- adults
- all book clubs
- birthday/graduation presents
- anyone who needs to go to the bathroom and wants something to read

I guess I'm highly recommending it to just about everyone. I'm putting it in the rare category of "can't miss."
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By The Book Babe on May 10, 2011
Format: Paperback
This was not exactly the book I thought it was when I put it on my "to-be-read" list so long ago. I thought it was going to be more of a historical look at the bumper sticker itself; how they came about, have evolved, why people love them, etc. Imagine my surprise when I realized that I was going to get a lesson in philosophical theory instead!

But it works, it really does. I thought it was very clever of Bowen to use something we all know (and mostly love), something as simple as a bumper sticker, to delve into some pretty tough topics. This small work covers just about everything: "reality", "the self", "values", "morality", even "the big questions". Each chapter has one of these general titles, then we get the bumper stickers.

For example, under the chapter "God and Religion", there are bumper sticker slogans ranging from "God Said It. I Believe It. That Settles It." to "God, Please Save Me, From Your Followers!". No sticker is safe, and Bowen discusses the philosophy behind them all. And brings up some valid points that I hadn't really thought about, either. Such as when he discusses the sticker "When You Pray Get Off Your Knees". I'm pretty sure I've seen this one somewhere before but have never really given it much thought. Bowen talks about the driver's selection of this sticker, that this person most likely believes that you need to do something to change things other than pray. Or that you can pray, but still need to get off your butt and do something to help yourself as well. Bowen uses a quote from Frederick Douglass to illustrate this point: "I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs." Perhaps the driver would have the companion sticker on the other side of the bumper (just my thinking here....
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By J. Marlin on December 20, 2011
Format: Paperback
The premise of this book struck me as promising when I picked it up, as I am a great lover of both bumper stickers and philosophy (which I teach, along with literature and history at the college level). Sadly, the book failed to deliver. Indeed, before halfway through I thought about putting it down for good, but chose to finish it for the sake of writing a review.

The book does not really do what the jacket blurb purports it does -- "dissects and reassembles the bumper-sticker 'wisdom' on passing cars." Rather, it uses bumper-sticker slogans as points of departure for (in the manner of the mechanicals in "A Midsummer Night's Dream") a sequence of brief, tedious musings that largely present center-left conventional wisdom. Being somewhat center-left myself, I didn't see terribly much to disagree with, but the fact is, I learned nothing new -- nor was any new light shed on old truths. In the end the clever premise for the book was rendered trite.

At first I imagined that my reaction stemmed from the fact that I was not the intended reader of this book, that it was aimed more at the young who are still forming their ideas about life and so on. But the further I got into the book, the more I wondered who the intended reader might be. The writer's voice is initially genial in this book, and charming at times, but it too often descends into glibness and mockery, the sign of someone less interested in persuading others than he is in asserting his own intellectual superiority. It's clear the writer has a quarrel (as do I) with Christian fundamentalists, but does he imagine that taking such a stance is going to change any of their minds? In my experience, it only hardens them.
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9 of 13 people found the following review helpful By R. Borneman on June 21, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I had heard Bowen interviewed on NPR and was excited to buy this book, particularly as my own studies have involved quick sum-it-all-up blurbs that people write in guestbooks at historic monuments. I hoped that, in addition to an assemblage of witty bumper-stickers, Bowen's commentary would provide (humorous) insights into the motives behind bumper stickers, (witty) analysis of origins in meanings, and the relevance of philosophy to the various positions assumed in bumperstickerism. The book proved sorely disappointing. The bumper stickers often speak well for themselves ("All Extremists Should Be Shot"), but are then followed by inept commentary "That's a little extreme, don't you think?" (p. 163).

The treatment of religion is particularly inarticulate. Bowen generally seems to mean conservative/fundamentalist, American Protestantism when he's not: (1) posing the shallow "If all religions claim to be right, are any of them?" question (p. 95, 210, etc.) or (2) reminding us that Muslim women are victims of honor killings "often carried out publicly" (p. 181). Ha! Ha! Ha! Love the humor! On pages 92 - 94 he writes about the Ichthys, inaccurately transcribing it as I-X-O-Y-E, thus missing both the Theta and Sigma (which he transcribes as O and E), also missing the alliterative-phonic origins of the symbol I for Iesous, X (chi), for Christos, etc.
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