Steve Bein is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Philosophy, teaching classes on Asian philosophy. Dr. Bein sat down with Kate Pitcher earlier this year to talk about books, reading and his writing life. Dr. Bein’s second novel in the Fated Blades series (Year of the Demon) is newly published by Roc (an imprint of Penguin Publishing) this October.
What are your current research interests?
My recent projects have been in compassion, environmental ethics, and applied ethics. My upcoming project is a book chapter on a Japanese philosopher called Watsuji Tetsurō. There I’m writing about problems of how we self-identify in the face of climate change.
What is your favorite literary genre to read for pleasure?
At heart I’m a science fiction and fantasy guy. They’ve got the most potential to be philosophically provocative. But when I’m reading for pleasure, I also have an eye for reading the kind of stuff I’m currently writing. So for Daughter of the Sword and Year of the Demon, I’ve been reading urban fantasy, historical fiction, and anything with strong female protagonists, because my books have all of those elements.
Do you read one book or multiple books at a time?
I read multiple books at a time. (In my line of work, there’s not much choice!)
What book(s) are currently on your nightstand or e-reader?
I make it a point to read some philosophy and some fiction every day. In philosophy I’m reading a lot of Watsuji Tetsurō right now. In fiction, Kurt Vonnegut’s Sucker’s Portfolio and Hugh Howey’s Wool.
Tell us about a book that changed your life:
Introduction to Zen Buddhism by D.T. Suzuki is the first book I read on Zen, at fourteen. It’s the book that put me on my career path. It taught me the importance of mental discipline, and that you didn’t necessarily need to replace one religion for another. The essential message is that your problems are problems because they are problematic for you. Stress is not objective. It’s not like weather; it’s not inevitable. You can manage it.
As for fiction, I read The Hobbit when I was a kid and I was hooked on fantasy after that. Tolkien led me to Madeline L’Engle, C.S. Lewis, Robert E. Howard, all of that stuff. From there I got into the sci fi side: Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, writers like that. But I think The Hobbit is the snowflake that triggered the avalanche.
Name a book you just couldn’t finish & why:
I was asked to review a first novel, The Name of the Wind, which was advertised as Tolkienesque. In my review I wanted to write, “it’s exactly as Tolkienesque as my work is Tolkienesque, which is to say not at all.” No one is Tolkienesque—not until they redefine an entire genre and influence everyone in it. My review of that book was, “Harry Potter without an interesting school, interesting adventures, or interesting friends, blathering on endlessly while taking superhuman efforts to remain a virgin.”
What were your favorite books as a child?
The Black Stallion, Choose Your Own Adventures, typical kid stuff. Thousands of pages of comic books. So many Conan novels. I was just at the right age when comic books made the shift from kid’s fare to adult fare. Batman, Wolverine and those guys were my mythology, but then graphic novels came into being, so I could follow them into high school and beyond.
Do you have any favorite books related to your academic background in Japanese philosophy and history—books that non-experts would find accessible?
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is brilliant, and very accessible. Robert Aitken is also very accessible; he’s one of the guys who brought Zen Buddhism to the United States. The Mind of Clover stands out as a good choice. On the Western side, Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World is a lovely little introduction to philosophy.
You also write fiction –how do you manage the difference in the writing process (or is there a difference?) between creative and scholarly writing?
They’re different but they inform each other. I think the demand for research in my academic life has trained me to do a lot of background reading for my fiction—which is a good thing, because historical fiction is heavily research intensive. On the flipside, the fiction acts as a reward system for the academic scholarship; in fact, I’m sure I never could have finished my dissertation without it. I was writing a novel at the time, and my system was to write 500 words a day for the dissertation before I was allowed to do any fiction writing. A year later I had a finished dissertation and a novel manuscript in hand.
And then there’s the obvious: no matter what you write, I think the more time you spend writing, the better you get at it. In my philosophy I want to be clear and lucid; in my fiction I want to write with panache. Not a lot of philosophers focus on the latter, but in my opinion, writing clearly, lucidly, and with flair is no bad thing.
If you could meet any writer, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you want to know?
Plato, and everything.