Walker Percy's The Message in the Bottle is a grouping of essays he's written over the years about "how queer man is, how queer language is, and what one has to do with the other." I'm not sure I'm qualified to discuss it, because I don't really know enough about semiotics or man's strange state. But here goes!
This is the book I was reading when I started the Dan Reads Things page for at least the second time, here on EmbassyXIV [now kaikairos.dev]. I won't be rating books on a proper scale, but I will be debriefing myself on them. Let's say I'm like a soldier on a mission, and the mission is: read this book. At the end of each book I'm going to ask myself three basic questions. They might change in the future.
- Did I enjoy this?
- Did I grow?
- Would I recommend this?
Without further delay, here is my debrief of The Message in the Bottle.
1. Did I enjoy this?
Yes, at least for the most part. I'm going to be honest. Percy often will write even philosophical fiction, and its a little dry sometimes. But he's still got a likable way about him in essayist form. The essays got a little technical near the end, and there's one in particular called "The Man on the Train" that I feel I was not versed enough in existentialism to understand the point of. There were a host of others which dealt a lot with semiotics (a sort of varied set of studies of signs and symbols) and, if I understand correctly, veer into philosophy of language and mind. I was glad for the myriad of more technical essays, because by seeing the same concepts discussed in slightly differing ways, I was able to assimilate them better. As far as aesthetic enjoyment goes, I think I enjoyed the philosophical anthropology and existential pieces a little better, but as I just said, the semiotic pieces were still valuable and perhaps more so grouped together.
2. Did I grow?
For a layman like myself, reading a relative layman like Percy, who in turn is intruding on and translating philosophical territory, I daresay I didn't understand everything. At the risk of picking on a particular essay, "The Man on the Train" had so many references to literature I haven't read, that I think some of it was lost on me by that fact. That said, I understand more now than I did before. I've seen him tackle existential themes and the notion of man as the symbolizing creature before, but not normally in such explicit detail. I have a more fleshed out idea of the semiotic debate, or at least what Percy perceived in his day, including some ideas of where I might want to start to get a better grasp of the debate (Charles Peirce, Ernst Cassirer, Chomsky, Skinner, Ogden and Richards). I already had some ideas of where to explore more of the Christian existentialist side of things (Marcel, Kierkegaard), but this book pushes me more towards Aquinas territory as well. Also, Gerard Manley Hopkins.
3. Would I recommend this?
Yes, but not without reservation. There are three essays I'd recommend pretty wholeheartedly: "The Delta Factor" which serves as a kind of overview, "The Loss of the Creature" about the Grand Canyon, and "Metaphor as Mistake", which discusses the value of, well, metaphor as mistake.
There are two more I recommend to people who won't mind a little religious pestering: "The Message in the Bottle" and "Notes for a Novel about the End of the World."
If you're more of the linguistic mind, the more semiotics-filled essays are at least interesting. I particularly recommend "Culture: The Antimony of the Scientific Method" and "Symbol as Need," though the latter of those two may veer a bit back towards the anthropological side.
All in all, The Message in the Bottle makes for an interesting read, if not as captivating at some points as at others. I would read it again, for sure. However, before I do, I'd like to do a bit more reading at least in the existentialist quarter if not also in semiotics, because I may just not have enough context to get at everything correctly.