In the same season that religious studies pioneer Jacob Needleman is publishing An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth another beloved pioneer, Huston Smith, is publishing this new memoir, And Live Rejoicing. Needleman's book focuses memoir in service of a greater purpose, to encourage a renewed appreciation of the Earth as a planet that needs our attention if it is to survive. In his memoir, Smith says his purpose is to encourage hope and joy as an extension of his own life's work. Smith's purpose is neither as pointed nor as consistent throughout the book as Needelman's narrative, but I have to say: If you love Huston Smith's work, this book is like spending an evening with a beloved old friend. It's fun and uplifting, even if it lacks the cohesive structure of Needleman's new book. In fact, I strongly recommend reading both books this year, one after the other.
Writing this review, as a veteran journalist, I think back across the many decades when Smith was a fixture on PBS, the man behind the standard volumes on world religion like the newer The Illustrated World's Religions: A Guide to Our Wisdom Traditions and a tireless advocate of seeing religion as a source of global goodness. I have interviewed Smith a number of times throughout his career and, as recently as this spring, recommended the earlier The Huston Smith Reader.
As a journalist, I also recommend reading the whole true story of Smith's life, including his involvement with the early experiments in the use of drugs to induce altered spiritual states as told in Don Lattin's The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. Huston Smith himself wasn't shy about discussing his personal research into mind-altering drugs that are part of major world religions; he wrote an entire book about it called Cleansing the Doors of Perception: The Religious Significance of Entheogenic Plants and Chemical. In the 1990s, Smith publicly worked on the political campaign to preserve Native American rights to use peyote in sacred rituals. For full balance on Smith's legacy, I also recommend reading Huston Smith's critics as well; the most articulate critic these days is Stephen Prothero in his book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World.
At this point, anyone who cares about religious cultures around the world probably has a couple Huston Smith books on the shelf -- perhaps a half dozen including a more than one edition of The World's Religions, originally published in 1958 as a major milestone in this field of study. So, the question is: Do we want this new book, prepared in collaboration with Phil Cousineau, Smith's main colleague in writing and editing. Smith is 93 as of this book review and has ever-increasing trouble speaking and moving, so works closely with Cousineau to keep communicating with the world. So, let me answer a few questions readers may have about this book:
Is this a new book? Some "new" Huston Smith books represent old Smith material in new packages. That's not a bad thing. The illustrated version of his world religion's book is beautiful. Live Rejoicing is new in the sense that he has newly produced about 200 pages of autobiographical stories and reflections, many of which Smith has told in talks over the years.
Is this a book about joy? In the opening pages, Smith tells readers that this book revolves around the question: How do we seize the day rejoicingly -- with hope and happiness over each new encounter? That is the general tone of the book, but you shouldn't expect Chicken Soup-style happy endings to every story. A vivid story about Smith's early experience with a Native American sweat lodge, for example, mainly shows us why it's tough for non-Indians to understand that ritual.
What section of Huston Smith's life does this book cover? The short answer is: all of it. However, the book is neither chronological nor sequential. The first stories jump right into Smith's mid-career work as an author; he then takes us back to his childhood; then, toward the end of the book, we travel back again for several anecdotes about his early public-television series, including an interview he conducted with Eleanor Roosevelt. In fact, if anything, the book's timeline often is confusing. Open this book as you might settle into a theater seat for an evening of Huston Smith talking about his life. Expect to ramble with him.
What parts of the world does Smith cover? Again: all of it. Given the rise of China as a world power, many readers may find the sections on China especially fascinating. As one might expect, there also are sections here on India and many other parts of the globe.
I highly recommend this book for individual reading. Small groups and book clubs may also enjoy discussing the book. While it is not organized well for a small-group series, the huge range of vivid anecdotes represents a grand central station for points of departure in conversation.