four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
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A Work of Fiction

A-36ArugmentsAward-winning author and philosophy professor Rebecca Newberger Goldstein has written five novels, including The Mind-Body Problem (1983), and biographies of both Kurt Gödel and Baruch Spinoza.

The Story: Cass Setzer, a professor at Frankenfurter University and an expert in the psychology of religion, has just become a celebrity thanks to his enormously popular new book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and its appendix, "36 Arguments for the Existence of God," which concisely and conclusively refutes each argument. Exulting in his newfound fame, this boyishly handsome, unusually sweet-tempered "atheist with a soul" muses on his past and the people who paved the way for his success, including his pedantic, Kabbalah-quoting mentor, and a 6-year-old Hasidic math prodigy, but his soul-searching nearly causes him to forget to prepare for a dramatic public showdown with neoconservative Nobel laureate Professor Felix Fidley.
Pantheon. 416 pages. $27.95. ISBN: 9780307378187

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"It’s still January, but 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is without a doubt the funniest work of existential philosophy you’ll read all year. Thoughtful, witty, and—I cannot stress enough—really entertaining, 36 Arguments is part campus comedy, part romantic farce, part philosophical treatise. It is also, without question, the smartest kid in class." Yvonne Zipp

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Goldstein’s book isn’t easy reading and may be too erudite for many. … But Goldstein is a brilliant exponent of her subject, and she has crafted a story that is caustically irreverent, yet provocative and informative without being completely didactic. And somewhat surprisingly, by the end, 36 Arguments is also deeply touching." Karen Campbell

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Her style is so effervescent and knowing that even if we have only the dimmest grasp of certain concepts, we are carried along. And so 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is also an education in math, philosophy, academia, psychology and Jewish culture." Jane Smiley

New York Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Overcomplicated yet dazzling, sparked by frequent flashes of nonchalant brilliance, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God affirms Ms. Goldstein’s rare ability to explore the quotidian and the cosmological with equal ease. … Though it is finally more a work of showmanship than scholarship, it affirms Ms. Goldstein’s position as a satirist and a seeker of real moral questions at a time when silly ones prevail." Janet Maslin

Critical Summary

A book of ideas rather than of plot or characters, Goldstein’s ambitious, dense, and dazzling novel fuses a fictional storyline with scholarly debate on religion, the nature of morality, and the human capacity for faith. Narrative continuity and well-rounded characters are not Goldstein’s strong points, and the mathematical proofs, poems, and fragments of game theory peppering the story do not make for light reading. However, critics touted her biting satire and penetrating philosophical questioning, which more than made up for these shortcomings. Despite the book’s anti-religious overtones, the protagonist, Cass, is "utterly disarming" (Christian Science Monitor), though some critics wished that his academic opponents were less clichéd. Enthralling, hilarious, and provocative—if sometimes ostentatiously didactic—36 Arguments will edify and entertain readers who don’t mind keeping a dictionary handy.