Palo Alto Weekly

- April 9, 2010

If you can, read this

Menlo School teacher studies stickers in his new work of nonfiction

"If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers," by Jack Bowen; Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2010, 221 pages, $14

by Jennifer Deitz

"If You Can Read This: The Philosophy of Bumper Stickers" is written by Jack Bowen, a private-school teacher with a master's degree in philosophy, who decided to deconstruct some of the more memorable bumper stickers that have adorned the backs of people's vehicles over the past few decades.

The way the book is structured and written, it feels a bit like taking a seat at the bar next to a friend who has about 150 bumper stickers laid out on the counter in front of him. Picture the friend being a little bit tipsy, very well read, with a broad, surface knowledge of just about everything including pop culture, philosophy, politics and history. Then imagine that he has decided — in a humorous, generally entertaining and sometimes even insightful way — to share with you his rambling thoughts about what each of these bumper stickers means, the flaws of reasoning inherent in the statement, what it might say about the person who chooses to affix the saying to a bumper, or about our times and the culture we live in. That's more or less what it's like to be inside of this book.

Bowen is a Stanford alumnus and teaches philosophy at Menlo School in Atherton. He has previously drawn on his background in philosophy in crafting his novel, "The Dream Weaver." Now, in turning to nonfiction, the voice of the narration has an instructive ring to it as if he wants to teach his readers lessons even as he entertains. The book is broken down into 10 themes including ethics, language, politics and society, God and religion, morality, and the self, among others.

Some of the bumper stickers he chooses to focus on might be considered classics, such as "Baby on Board," and "Free Tibet." Readers will learn that the Baby on Board signs and bumper stickers came into popularity in the 1980s with the founding company stating that the purpose of the signs was to "improve child safety."

Bowen mocks the absurdity of thinking that a sign in a window is going to change the trajectory of an impending car crash. As he writes, "The assumption is that, as your car is spinning out of control, your soymilk latte spilling on your cashmere sweater, you will avoid the warning-bearing car and instead drive your car into the baby-free victim. Another baby saved." But he also roots his ruminations in psychology, looping use of this kind of bumper sticker into a larger tradition of drivers hanging things like crucifixes and lucky fuzzy dice off of rearview mirrors thereby allowing themselves a false sense of security in believing they have done something to protect themselves from the dangers on the road. This kind of behavior, Bowen points out, is a perfect example of a psychological phenomenon known as "action bias" in which people are often inclined to do something rather than nothing, even if it leads to a worse result, largely because there are more negative feelings associated with not taking action and failing then there are with failing but at least having tried to take action.

Bowen also highlights many of the more obscure bumper stickers that may not have made anyone's top 10 lists but still have a comic, ironic, absurdist, or provocative element that makes them well worth pondering. Those types include "Visualize Whirled Peas" (a play on the more traditionally known saying, "Visualize World Peace), "If a Man Speaks in the Forest and There's No Woman There to Hear Him, Is He Still Wrong?", and "I Have No Problem with Euthanasia. The Youth in Asia Made My Tennis Shoes" in which the speaker conflates two major ethical conflicts and employs a clever wordplay, yet still manages to leave the overarching message somewhat inscrutable.

In other instances, Bowen tracks how a single bumper sticker can spawn an ongoing debate and dialog from across the political spectrum. His most entertaining example of this is when "Guns Don't Kill People, People Do" became a launch pad for a discussion with spin-off bumper stickers answering back: "Guns Don't Kill People. Bullets Do," "Guns Don't Kill People, Guns Kill Dinner," "Guns Don't Kill People, Drivers with Cell Phones Do," and finally, "No...I'm Pretty Sure That Guns Kill People."

"If You Can Read This" is frequently entertaining and sometimes even educational. Whether anyone truly needs 220 pages worth of this type of "edu-tainment" is another question.

How many hours would the average person be willing to sit with a friend who chats on obsessively about bumper stickers? A best guess would be that it's probably fewer than the number of hours it would take to read this book. This type of meditation is probably best enjoyed a few pages at a time — the kind of book that should be kept out on the coffee table to be picked up whenever the reader needs a good laugh, since what Bowen comes up with is often very funny and sometimes even laugh-out-loud funny. Also, and perhaps most importantly, it could very well help readers to think twice before slapping any more stickers onto the backs of their cars.

Freelance writer Jennifer Deitz can be reached at deitzjen@gmail.com.

Comments

Posted by Doug E. Reader, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 11, 2010 at 7:42 am

A friend saw Bowen speak at Keplers and loved him. I got the book and am almost halfway through it. I love it. The reviewer is right that its laugh out loud funny and I have learned quite a bit along the way. This all completely overturns the annoyance I felt by philosophy when I took it in college. A friend who's reading the book and I have already had quite a few discussions about ideas from this book. Every now and then, Bowen startles you with an idea that you don't like and you have to pause for a moment. But most often, he jolts you with an idea that you love and have never thought and then makes you laugh. Great review.


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 11, 2010 at 11:43 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

Explaining a pun to someone is demeaning.


Posted by Attay, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2010 at 7:02 am

Having a pun or aphorism explained that you don't understand or know the meaning of, on the other hand, can be quite fun and eye-opening if done in the right way.


Posted by Walter_E_Wallis, a resident of Midtown
on Apr 12, 2010 at 10:26 am

Walter_E_Wallis is a registered user.

If it ever happens...


Posted by Attay, a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 16, 2010 at 8:15 am

That's just the point--you don't want to make overt generalizations. Sometimes, "enlightening" someone can be demeaning and sometimes it involves thoughtful discourse. This book, I must say as I'm about two thirds through it, is much more the latter and funny while he's at it.


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