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Book Review: I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World by James Geary

Genre: Nonfiction, Writing
Hardcover: 304 pages
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: February 8, 2011
ISBN-10: 0061710288
ISBN-13: 978-0061710285
Author Website: James Geary

“Metaphor is most familiar as the literary device through which we describe one thing in terms of another,” says James Geary in his new book I is an Other: The Secret Life of Metaphor and How it Shapes the Way We See the World, “Yet metaphor is much, much more than this….[M]etaphor pervades our daily lives and daily minds….[T]here is no aspect of our experience not molded in some way by metaphor’s almost imperceptible touch.”

In I is an Other Geary proves that metaphor is one of the most basic ways humanity understands and interacts with the world. By looking at metaphor’s use in various spheres of human life and activity, Geary argues poignantly yet simply for the universality of metaphor. From the basics of thought, to etymology, money, the mind, advertising, politics, pleasure, psychology and more, Geary writes a succinct, easily readable yet intellectually provoking work.

Synthesizing over 30 pages of bibliography and reading on widely varied subjects as well as metaphor itself, Geary sets out to prove that metaphor is not only at work in all fields of human endeavor, but that using metaphor is a basic, primal instinct. For instance, when talking about money we invariably use words like “bear” and “bull” or metaphors of movement like “climb”, “slump” or “bounce back”. When we think we see patterns in the stock market, we are actually being influenced by metaphor rather than hard data. We must do this in order to convince ourselves that the stock market is headed in a progressively upward direction – or else why would we take such risks? Without metaphor, we could not convince ourselves, not even see “patterns” in almost any data at all.

Metaphor is basic to everyone. Each language uses different words, but the metaphors remain the same across continents. Humans must understand what unfamiliar things are in relation to familiar things. We must make comparisons, say “I is an Other” or “X=Y” in order to make sense of anything.

Geary writes in a laidback style. Though heavily researched, this volume is not a critical paper or academic treatise, but rather a popular synthesis of the thinking on metaphor. Geary’s writing is approachable for the lay person interested in metaphor, even usable for undergraduate college English programs. (It would be too much for high-schoolers, but would certainly be a helpful resource for A.P. or even standard class English teachers.) It is a fascinating read for anyone interested in words and how readers and speakers construct them.

Advertisers and writers might find the book useful as well. It isn’t really written to those groups, but some of the information might be of use in their work. Science fiction writers will get a kick out of some of the examples Geary uses. Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker, Stanislaw Lem’s The Futurological Congress and the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Darmok” all get used as examples or analogies of metaphor in addition to more universally recognized thinkers and writers like: Robert Burns, John Donne, Aristotle, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, and Shakespeare.

Geary’s examples vary even more widely than the Western canon, using more unknown (to Westerners) thinkers from Islamic history right alongside the latest notions from the trend setters in the various fields he discusses. He also uses personal anecdotes about his mother, his home in London and an autistic student. (Some people with autism have difficulty understanding metaphor, making them aptly suited for showcasing our need for metaphor.)

Half the fun of reading the novel is how Geary uses the very metaphor he writes about. Geary follows through on his theses, making it possible for the reader to understand an “other” (i.e. the concept of metaphor) in terms of the concrete or easily relatable experience. After reading any chapter of I is an Other, TV, books, music, conversation all take on a new life as you hear and see metaphor being put to use. You feel like you belong to an elite club of the wise, Solomon-like kings who understand as well as use language.

The book is broad in scope, so Geary does not get into excessive detail about each subject merely giving convincing examples and explanation. But as the work builds, the reader becomes more and more slowly convinced by Geary’s broader argument, namely, that metaphor “impinges on everything, allowing us – poets and non-poets alike – to experience and think about the world in fluid, unusual ways. Metaphor is the bridge we fling between the strange and the utterly familiar, between dice and drowned men’s bones, between I and an other.”