If Minds Had Toes
by Lucy Eyre
Published by Bloomsbury
288 pages, 2007
Debates on the Nature of Consciousness. With a Spittake
Reviewed by Andi Shechter
Back in the distant 1970s, I earned money by typing papers for college students. One of those papers was a doctoral dissertation for Peter, a friend who was getting a degree in philosophy. As I remember, it was a few hundred interminable pages on Immanuel Kant.
One day, Peter asked me what I thought of the dissertation. I stumbled and kicked the dirt and muttered and finally said “um, Peter, well, um, it’s just that well, um” and tried to convince him I wasn’t qualified to say anything. But he kept asking so finally I explained that I just couldn’t get the point of discussion; what the nature of man should be. I didn’t disagree that it should be discussed, and thought Peter was just the sort of person we needed to deal with such lofty issues (it seems right somehow that there are people out there thinking deep thoughts) but once it was decided, then what? What do you do with the knowledge? I just wasn’t very good at abstract, I said. I only understood philosophy as it applied to something. I’d studied political philosophy in college and at least that aimed toward understanding various forms of government and why some folks believed democracy was best, and some thought anarchy would work and why fascism or meritocracies, or varying social constructs or oligarchies were desirable. But the “what ifs” that I was typing just bored me.
If I had a better grounding in abstract philosophy, maybe I would understand the point of If Minds Had Toes. The book is cute in a lot of ways. It's bright, sprightly, full of dialogue and characters that might work if my eyes did not have a tendency to completely glaze over by the time I hit the second page of discussion.
Perhaps a college freshman might grasp the concepts of abstract philosophy by reading this book, a first book by a woman with a background in philosophy, politics and economics (she studied at Oxford University). Maybe I would have been swayed by the way the discussion is couched; In the “World of Ideas,” Socrates and Wittgenstein decide to settle a bet by convincing someone of the value of philosophy. Maybe there are 15 year old boys out there like Ben, the protagonist who’s chosen as the experimental subject here, who might get into it, if he’s lured by a pretty young woman (she’s dead; they all are, of course).
And the book is quirky and funny in many ways. We meet lots of philosophers, from Machiavelli to Marx (and the lesser-knowns; it was nice to see John Rawls in a cameo) but quirky can only work when there’s work behind it. I realized as I continued to read at page 40 and then at 80 and then page 126 that nothing was going to change; that it was all dialogues about philosophical constructs, the ones that glazed my eyes over 25 years ago. As I’ve often said, I don’t need my books full of car chases, but I do need something to happen. This ain’t it. Whether the book would succeed better if it were a series of quirky dialogues about philosophy and relativism and free will and what is “I” and what is “reality” and do I see what you see when I look at something blue, I don’t know. I never enjoyed those discussions, though I always wondered if they’d be more interesting or appealing if I were under the influence of slightly illegal substances.
But here it is; Ben works in a chip shop and spends his time in the “world of ideas” where Socrates runs things and has a bet going that he can convince a person of the value of philosophy. So Ben wanders the World of Ideas with all its funny doors ( “the Skeptic Tank”) and he witnesses conversations about abstracts to which he sometimes contributes and other times watches. Then he returns (through the linen closet) to his real world home and tries out various concepts on his friends and family, all of whom collectively offer “huh?” because he makes little sense. Bugging his 10 year old sister by pointing at her photo from years ago and asking if she’s the person in the photo because all her molecules have changed might work well when you’re stoned or sleep-deprived or perhaps just feeling the thrill of thinking new things, but it turned into a waking nightmare for me as I waited to find out if I’d flunked my Philosophy 102 final exam.
Eyre’s characters might be quirky and cute, but they’re all constructs you’re not meant to know, except for Ben, who makes little sense. He goes from being a very ordinary English boy to someone who can debate instinct and the nature of experience the next moment.
I seldom ask “who is this book for?” but in this case, I had to wonder who the audience for If Minds Had Toes might be. Honestly, I can’t see a lot of readers sitting around joyously reading about debates of the nature of consciousness. Even with cute little (very bad) drawings included which don’t work. Perhaps if it were clear that Ben drew them, but, nah, that still doesn’t help. Maybe if it were a groovy little non-fiction guide to, in the words of the book, “how to do philosophy” it would have worked. After all, I have different expectations from fiction and from non-fiction, especially “quirky” humorous non-fiction.
However, in this piece of fiction, I kept waiting for something -- anything -- to happen. Anything that would relieve the anxiety and boredom of trying to follow two dead people discussing “what am I?” | July 2007
Andi Shechter has been a publicist, chat host, interviewer, convention-planner, essayist and reviewer. She lives in Seattle with far too many books, an old-but-cute purple computer, not enough soft toys (including a small but select hedgehog and gorilla collection), many figure skating videotapes and an esoteric collection of hot sauces. There's a Hugo Award on her mantelpiece which belongs to her partner, cartoonist and artist Stu Shiffman.