Book review: Devotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro

Posted February 16, 2011 by Heather in Book Reviews / 0 Comments

Book review:  Devotion: A Memoir by Dani ShapiroDevotion: A Memoir by Dani Shapiro
Published by HarperCollins on January 26, 2010
Genres: Nonfiction, Memoir
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 256
Source: the publisher

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Having grown up in a deeply religious and traditional family, Shapiro had no personal sense of faith, despite repeated attempts to create a connection to something greater. Feeling as if she was plunging headlong into what Carl Jung termed "the afternoon of life," she wrestled with self-doubt and a searing disquietude that would awaken her in the middle of the night. Set adrift by loss—her father's early death; the life-threatening illness of her infant son; her troubled relationship with her mother—she had become edgy and uncertain. At the heart of this anxiety, she realized, was a challenge: What did she believe? Spurred on by the big questions her young son began to raise, Shapiro embarked upon a surprisingly joyful quest to find meaning in a constantly changing world. The result is Devotion: a literary excavation to the core of a life.

(from the inside flap)

Devotion is a collection of 102 relatively short, connected essays, all written over the span of two years while Shapiro was trying to sort out what her personal beliefs are.  Coming from an Orthodox Jewish family that had always told her what to believe, she was having a hard time deciding what to put her faith in as an adult who makes her own choices.  She starts to question whether going through the motions of daily life is all there is, and whether there isn’t some deeper meaning to life that she’s missing.  As her Buddhist teacher-turned-friend sums it up, “The whole world is a lesson in what’s true.  Everyone is struggling.  Life is difficult for everybody.  Once you’re in, there’s no way out.  You have to go forward.  And we all die in the end.  So how to deal with it?”

The essays are all well-written and interesting, from her description of Orthodox Jewish practices, to Buddhist teachings, to her daily yoga sessions.  I learned quite a bit about Judaism that I didn’t know before, and I will give this piece of advice:  if you are planning on reading this and are unfamiliar with the Jewish faith, make sure you have a dictionary handy to look up the Jewish vocabulary that she uses throughout the book.

I have to admit, had I not won this book from a contest on Twitter, I never would have chosen to buy it or read it.  I have never been a spiritual person (“spirit” being defined in religious terms), nor have I ever asked myself if there is something more to life (spiritually) than what I surround myself with every day.  I was not raised in a strict, religious home and have no idea what my life would have been like if I had been.  That isn’t to say that I don’t sympathize with Shapiro, though.  I can’t imagine losing either of my parents, or one of my children being deathly ill, or living in New York City at the time of the terrorist attacks on 9/11.  But as far as the religious aspect of her search, the book never moved me beyond a philosophical interest.

On the other hand, I did find some things I could agree with and relate to.  I found the essays on Buddhism, meditation and yoga particularly interesting.  I have long wanted to start doing yoga or learn some meditation practices to help shut down my ever-running mind from time to time, and I have always felt the teachings of Buddhism to be on par with what I try to practice (although not for religious reasons).  Shapiro and I both dislike the phrase “everything happens for a reason,” and I liked this explanation she gave to a friend who asked what exactly she believes, if not in God himself:

I believe that there is something connecting us.  Something that was here before we got here and will still be here after we’re gone.  I’ve begun to believe that all of our consciousnesses are bound up in that greater consciousness.

I believe that in a way, too, but I would replace “consciousness” with “energy,” and I don’t think that this energy is some form of presence.  Still, these are things that I could nod at and that I took a few minutes to think about.  I also liked the conclusion that she came to at the end of the book.

All in all, I thought this book was okay.  I personally wouldn’t read it again, but I wasn’t disappointed with it, either.  The writing was good, I liked the way it was put together and I learned a lot about Judaism, yoga and meditation.  I liked reading about Shapiro’s determination to find answers to questions that were really important to her, and I think that it was a noble endeavor on her part.  I also have respect for someone who isn’t afraid to share a very personal journey like this with others who may be struggling with the same questions.  This would be a good book for those adults who might be looking—or have looked—for some greater meaning in life and will be comforted knowing that they aren’t the only ones searching.  Although it has often been recommended for people over the age of 30, I think younger adults would enjoy it, too.

(Click here to learn more about Dani Shapiro.)