COMMENTS AND REVIEWS

























NIAGARA, a novel
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1993.
French translation: LES CHUTES DU NIAGARA. Paris: Editions Phebus, 1997.

Niagara is the story of two daredevils whose lives are changed forever when they challenge the swirling waters of Niagara Falls.

Jean Francois Gravelet has lived much of his life performing on a wire high over the heads of admiring crowds below. But the reputation of a tightrope walker is as precarious as the possibility of a misstep, and Gravelet decides to leave France to make his name by risking the ultimate fall: a wire walk across the great American landmark, Niagara Falls.

Widowed schooteachers in Nebraska of 1901 don't have mahy options. So it looks as though Anna Edson Taylor's life will be just what people expect, until she answers an advertisement offering a brave "man" a chance to put his name in history books by riding inside a barrel over Niagara Falls

When Taylor is the only person brave enough to ride a wheelbarrow across Gravelet's high wire, the exploits of the two are irrevocably entwined. They tell their stories in parallel, but contradictory, narratives, speaking eloquently about the natures of men and women, how to find balance in life, and living together on the edge of the abyss. A fast-paced story that uncovers profound truths about obsession, courage, and love, Niagara is based on actual historical figures who never met in real life--but who, as these pages reveal, belong together.

    ----Jacket copy


"Watson gives each section of Niagara an epigraph. Gravelet's is a quote from Karl Wallenda: 'To be on the wire is life; the rest is waiting." Taylor's: 'Remember me when I am gone away.'"

    ----Hungry Mind Review


"Watson's sparkling, delightful new novel . . . Niagara . . . In this assured, witty, imaginative novel, Watson effectively uses the high wire and the Falls plunge as metaphors for the intrepid navigations of life."

    ----Publisher's Weekly starred review


"Richard Watson deserves to be better known . . . his slim but resonant novel Niagara . . . is not a simple book . . . Someday you'll have to read it again. Which is just what you want from a novel. You want it to leave enough questions in your mind to make it last."

    ----Men's Journal


"Richard Watson's Niagara depends heavily upon the author's ability to capture the voice of his characters; Watson succeeds brilliantly . . . The pleasure of reading Niagara is much like the pleasure of watching a superb character actor do those thousand small things that make a role come alive."

    ---Prairie Schooner


"Richard Watson's prose is as swift and cool and clean as Niagara water, and knows equally well where it goes: which is to combine two kinds of accomplishment--an active courage, which requires training, the balance of the bird, a ferret's daring, and then a passive one, which allows itself to be carried into danger, which endures inside its burrow, surviving, somehow, even its success. Which sort of reader will you be: the one in the barrel or the one on the wire? Which journey will you take: the walk above the falls, or the swift plunge through it? Either one will take your breath away."

    ----William H. Gass


"Richard Watson, extraordinary recorder of adventures in deep caves, now extends his territory to the high wire, in an aerial adventure that is really a 'how to" for life--a wonderful balancing act."

    ----Ronald Sukenick


"Richard Watson's Niagara is a delightful highwire act over the abyss of 'truth,' well-balanced and brave."

    ----Robert Coover


"An intense, highly focused study of character in history--compulsively readable."

    ----Paul Ingram, Prairie Lights Bookstore


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THE RUNNER, a novel.
Lakemont: Copple House Books, 1981.
Large print edition. Pittsburgh: Bower Hill, 1990.
Paperback reprint. Dayton: Cave Books, 2010.
Italian translation, L'UOMO CHE CORREVA. Milan: Positive Press, 1999.

THE RUNNER is the story of a man who takes up running in his middle years. Gregory is happily married, the father of twins, a certified public accountant. His inner life is a counterpoint to externals--a windjammer cruise in the Carribean, a climb up the north face of Long's Peak, the gradual estrangement from his wife that begins when she goes to Florida to stay with her aging mother. As these events mark his passage through middle age he becomes increasingly engaged with running to the point where it approaches obsession. Running becomes his chief activity, it becomes an art that he masters, and finally, it becomes a metaphor of his existence. THE RUNNER is emphatic in its realism. It is at the same time richly symbolic and evocative of forms that lie deep within the human spirit.

    ----Jacket copy


"The runner is Gregory . . . an unforgettable character . . . An unpretentious, superbly written novel that deserves a large audience."

    ----AMERICAN LIBRARY ASSOCIATION BOOKLIST


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UNDER PLOWMAN'S FLOOR, a novel.
Teaneck: Zephyrus Press, 1978, 224 pp.
Paperback reprint: Dayton, Cave Books, 2006.

UNDER PLOWMAN'S FLOOR is the story of a man who becomes devoted to cave exploration. We follow him from his first cave trip underground through his metamorphosis into a master caver in charge of directing the exploration of one of the most demanding caves in the world. In his fifties, driven by an obsessive passion, he begins solo caving. Some thirty years after his first cave trip he reaches a goal that makes him into a legend. UNDER PLOWMAN'S FLOOR provides an answer to the eternal question: Why climb that mountain? Why explore that cave?

Watson was for more than twenty years a member of a small group of cavers who led the exploration of the Flint Mammoth Cave System in Kentucky, now the world's longest (over 350 miles of connected cave passages) as a result of their efforts. He is the coauthor with Roger W. Brucker of THE LONGEST CAVE (Knopf, 1977), the story of this exploration. His vast practical experience and probing turn of mind have combined to produce a thoughtful and richly detailed novel of undeniable authority and versimilitude.

    ----Jacket copy


"Watson's likeable novel . . . is as much about the growth of fellowship as it is about testing stamina and the finding of underground wonders . . . The life and lore down under . . . meditative and rewarding."

    ----KIRKUS REVIEWS


"Watson writes about the great caves of Kentucky like St. Exupery wrote about the Sahara Desert, with lyrical beauty, tangible realism, and deep honesty."

    ----Malcolm McConnell


"UNDER PLOWMAN'S FLOOR is a novel that peels open the dark spooky world of caving. It portrays with ower and precision one man's quest to explore the unknown, to discover not just what lies in the mysterious depths of the earth but of his own heart."

    ----Willard Manus


"Watson shows that to learn what it means to be a caver can help us extend our horizons to understand more fully what it means to be a human being."

    ----NATIONAL SPELEOLOGICAL SOCIETY NEWS


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THE PHILOSOPHER'S DEMISE: LEARNING FRENCH
Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.
Paperback edition. Boston: David R. Godine, 2003.
Italian translation, UN FILOSOFO A PARIGI. Milan: Positive Press, 1999.

Richard Watson, a well-known American scholar of Descartes, could read French. He could translate French. But he had never learned to speak it. When he is invited to deliver a paper in Paris--in French--he begins a hilarious and often harrowing voyage on the rough seas of learning to speak a foreign language in late middle age.

A crash course with a native speaker is his starting point. Buoyed by these intensive lessons, Watson fantasizes about conversing ably with the hallowed inner circle of French Cartesian scholars in a Paris café. When they unceremoniously rebuff him at the conference, Watson realizes, with a sigh, that he still cannot really speak French.

Ever determined, the beleaguered scholar signs up for a two-month program at the Alliance Française in Paris, where he is taught--and sometimes tormented--by a sequence of female French professors, each more formidable than the last. In the course of the book, Watson digresses on the contrasts between France and America, on Americans in Paris, and on the mysteries of French engineering. He introduces eccentric French cave explorers and still more eccentric French scholars. But above all, we meet Watson himself--a cave explorer and a teacher with a Midwestern reluctance to make his mouth perform the contortions required by French--as he confronts his own national prejudices and his obsession with learning French.

THE PHILOSOPHER'S DEMISE is for anyone who has ever tried to learn another language, who has ever asked for directions in a foreign country, who has ever been a student or a teacher, who has ever thought about growing old. Wry, witty, and utterly irresistible, it will make you laugh out loud--at Americans in Paris, at the world of scholarly learning, and at the struggles of a man valiantly growing older.

“What I wanted, was that when I asked a distinguished Cartesian scholar a question, as I did in a discussion period at the conference in La Haye, the birthplace of Descartes, and had not dared to do in Paris, what I wanted was that he understand and answer my question, that he not look as though the village idiot had spoken to him with all the earnestness of his imbecility and as clearly as a cleft palate permitted.”

    ----Jacket copy


THE PHILOSOPHER'S DEMISE is full of fascinating commentary: on the charms (and din) of Paris, on Watson's French friends and the teachers and multicultural students he encountered, on Americans abroad, and on the nature of language itself. A small delight.

    ----BOOKLIST

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THE PHILOSOPHER'S DIET: HOW TO LOSE WEIGHT AND CHANGE THE WORLD.
Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1985.
Paperback edition. Boston: David R. Godine, 1998.
Translations: Portuguese, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese simplified, Chinese complex, Japanese, Hebrew, and Roumanian.

This toothsome classic takes on the combined challenges of discovering the meaning of the universe and eliminating fat at the same time. Its topic sentence contains a promise that should sell millions: "In this book, I tell how to take weight off and keep it off." He doesn't stop there, but continues, "The book also embodies a philosophy of life. The weight program is the content of the book, the philosophy of life is its form." If Descartes had sat down to write a treatise on losing weight as a metaphor for maintaining discipline amidst life's vicissitudes, it would have read much like this.

Clearly, Mr. Watson has not written a low-fat, new-age, easy-fix solution for the weight challenged. After all, losing weight is hard work. But for our money, it is the most erudite, fascinating, and eccentric book ever written on the subject of weight control, a combination of common sense (driven by human experience), Cartesian philosophy, and the presumption that understanding the mysteries of weight loss and the universe are somehow compatible, even sympathetic, ambitions.

The author is (of course) a professional philosopher, and this extraordinary exegesis is at once a moral manifesto, a philosophical discourse, and a practical manual (although the chapters on "How to Live" and "How to Die" take it a few steps beyond the ordinary). We love this book, for its humor, its iconoclasm, and its weird and wacky mixture of high seriousness and low humor. Buy it. Even if you're not overweight, it's a book to treasure.

    ----Jacket copy


"Those seeking guidance in shedding weight will find it here, while those pursuing higher truth will also find nourishment, for the author's playful engagement of large themes succeeds in philosophy's essential task, rendering meaning from the intractable fat of experience."

    ----A COMMON READER


"Ten pages from the end, Watson announces what he's been hinting at all along: 'What I have to say is that fat, my friends, is in my book a metaphor. Fat represents the nagging triviality, the utter banality, and the inevitability of what we think we want to be.'...It is not the content of the action that matters, but the form: taking control of your life."

"In 'How to Die, the book's last and finest chapter, we are treated to a luscious catalogue of the heavy and sinful foods that Watson's father loved to eat, including 'gravy made from ham grease mixed with cream. He would take a thick slice of bread and put it on his plate, and spoon ham gravy until the bread was soaked all through.' Dying of cancer, Watson's father first gave up on hospital prolongings, and then on food itself. As Watson stayed at bedside for the final three weeks, his father took his own course, as best he could, into death. You get the point, don't You?"

    ----Stephen Cory, The Georgia Review


"Nobody needs this book to diet, but anybody (dieter or not) can profit from Watson's rousing and witty Let's-hear-it for 'a difficult and long-term project freely chosen' despite 'the seeming silliness of working so hard on such an ultimately minor matter.'"

    ----Kirkus Reviews


"Watson's prose is lively and peppered with references to significant philosophers. His approach to dieting is unique, his life philosophy appealing."

    ----Publishers Weekly


"Watson's program and his rationale, his entertaining anecdotes and debunkings of myths, even the single recipe he furnishes ('The Philosopher's Recipe for Bran Muffins')--all are delivered with a passion that shows. Watson is a man with a mission, his fervor at times almost evangelical. As was said of Dr. Johnson, 'when his pistol misses fire, he knocks you down with the butt end of it." He actually believes we can change our lives and thus change the world--and he builds a persuasive case."

    ----Stanley W. Lindberg, Harper's Magazine


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THE PHILOSOPHER'S JOKE: ESSAYS IN FORM AND CONTENT.
Buffalo:Prometheus Books, 1990.

The Philosopher's Joke is a volume of related literary-philosophical essays on the theme of form and content. Beginning with a strictly formalistic treatment of the relation of perfection of form to truth of content in literature, Richard Watson comes full circle to a concluding essay in which the content of life is unraveled as a pig's meaningless tale. In between, the reader is taken on a Cook's Tour of hopping and skipping, meaning, seducing, dying, and dreaming. Five of the essays are exercises in the dominant sytles of philosophical writing popular in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, '80s, and (by projection) the 1990s. These stylistic conceits are part of the joke. But the main joke of this philosopher has to do with ambiguity. "Tell me," begged a reader of his earlier book, The Philosophers Diet, "is this a serious diet or not?" "Yes," Richard Watson replied. Similarly, a referee remarked that the manuscript of the present book treats serious subjects, but he sometimes couldn't make out where the author stood. Precisely. Are these pieces parodies or not? Does the author--or rather, the personae that are the projected authors of the very different pieces--really hold the positions pontificated? And does that make a difference, whether Richard Watson--or the authorial persona, or the text itself--is serious? It is serious, deadly serious, all of it, for to write--as the author contends elsewhere--is to die a little, and philosophy--as is contended herein--is mostly about death. An odd book, but above all a thoughtful one.

    ----Jacket copy


"Britain's reigning sage Sir Isaiah Berlin remarked that as a student he switched from majoring in philosophy to history so that at midlife he could at least know more about his chosen subject than when he began. Similarly, Omar Khayyam likened philosophical inquiry to a kind of semantic funhouse where you finally go out the same door you entered.

“Now enters Richard A. Watson, a full professor of philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis, with a series of literary philosophic essays called THE PHILOSOPHER'S JOKE. They might also be called philosophic literary essays to make the point that the graceful, clear prose of English philosophers like Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume died with them and is rarely resurrected with Watson's felicity. This is because the Germans lost the world wars, but won the metaphysical semantic struggle for meaningless babble, sesquipedal jargon, mental aridity, and circular argumentation.

“Watson thus breaks contemporary philosophical shop rules by having content as well as form. Four of his essays spoof the earnestly costive academic styles of logical positivists, existentialists, and other microscopic fallen angels dancing on linguistic pinheads. He concludes with a final satiric piece which likens the pilgrimage of human life to the life cycle of a pig.

“Is this a pig's tale? Not in a pig's eye.

“Watson's parodic skill tumbles mental card castles and provides a satiric whoopee cushion to amplify ivory tower flatulence. But he is as serious at heart as any good satirist, in the tradition of Swift's A Modest Proposal, and others similarly detoxified of self-conferred godhood.

“The thesis of Watson's fine little book is that in analyzing form and content, we must hope that the form indeed has content, rather like the old lady on the fast food television commercial who wailed, 'Where's the beef?' when she opened her burger carton.

“This book is wonderful aerobic jazzercise for the mind, reminding us that profundities such as that one plus one equals two are empty syntheses, because learning that one plus one equals one plus one does not take the mind on a heuristic leap. Santayana said that the young man who cannot cry is a barbarian, and the old fellow who cannot laugh is a fool. Watson adds to this tonic prescription the notion that the philosopher who cannot joke has no wisdom."

    ----THE WEST COAST REVIEW OF BOOKS


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COGITO, ERGO SUM: THE LIFE OF RENE DESCARTES.
Boston: David R. Godine, 2003.
Paperback revised edition. Boston: David R. Godine, 2007.
Spanish translation. DESCARTES: EL FILOSOFO DE LA LUZ.
Barcelona: Vergara, 2003.

RENE DESCARTES is the philosophical architect of our modern world. His view that mind and body are distinct substances is essential for our belief in the immortality of the soul. His invention of analytic geometry led to the calculus that makes modern physics possible and his method of testing hypotheses is the foundation of experimental science. He described laws of refraction and reflection; pioneered vivisection and anatomical dissection; analyzed the relations among the senses, nerves, and brain; and investigated the role of emotions in human behavior. From heart transplants to personal computers, nothing in our twenty-first-century world would surprise Descartes.

Descartes's motto was that a life well hidden is a life well lived. His secrecy led to tales that the great philosopoher meditated in bed each morning until eleven, piously followed the dictates of a cardinal, and wrote verses for a queen. Many such myths are exploded in Cogitio, Ergo Sum, the first biography of Descartes since 1920 based on extensive new archival and field research. It is explicitly the life of Descartes, presented here in flesh and blood, written for scholars and general readers alike. In this respect, it stands alone.

    ----Jacket copy


    Chosen by the New York Public Library as one of "25 BOOKS TO REMEMBER FROM 2002".


"This is unlike any other book on Descartes I know of . . . It is exciting to accompany Watson through the dusty books and archives, listening to his crusty comments, and sometimes wild conjectures."

    ----Daniel Garber, Princeton University


"A lively, pugnacious, and clear account of a philosophical life."

    ----Los Angeles Times Book Review


"The narrative in which Watson injects his own persona and experiences tracing Descartes throughout Europe is both rigorous and engrossing, and readers will see clearly how pertinent the seventeenth-century Descartes is to the modern world.

    ----Library Journal


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The Longest Cave,
with Roger W. Brucker.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.
Second edition, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987.

For mountainers, the ascent of Everest was the ultimate challenge. For cavers, the great dream was to descend into Kentucky's two vast cave systems, Flint Ridge and Mammoth, to discover a link between them. The story of that spectacular caving adventure is told here by two participants, Roger Brucker and Red Watson, who with a few dozen men and women for twenty years shared an obsession to make that connection. For more than eighty miles, they penetrated farther and farther underground, squeezing through tight passages, sloshing through underground rivers, chimneying up shafts, climbing down deep pits, and squirming on their bellies through virtually endless crawlways without making the connection. At last, in 1972, Pat Crowther forced her wiry body through the Tight Spot, making possible the seven-mile connection trip.

This is a firsthand account of that extraordinary breakthrough and of the personalities involved: their courage, their humor, their monomania, and their coolheadedness, even when a companion was injured or lost. Sometimes rivalry spurred thm on, and they were often propelled by a kind of cavalier bravado, in desperate moments repeating to themselves the old but dubious caving adage: "Anything you can get into, you can get out of." Brucker and Watson make you feel the caver's passion: the lure of the unknown coupled with the fear of it, and the thrill of going through darkness to places where no one else has ever been before. Here is an entire subterranean world, a curious shadowy landscape few people have ever seen, where delicate crystalline gypsum flowers grow eighteen inches long on the passage walls and the fish in pools and rivers are translucent and eyeless.

Here, too, is the history of human exploration of these enormous caves: from the prehistoric people who mined gypsum 4000 years ago (whose footprints have been found in the dust of the passage floors), to Stephen Bishop, a black slave who was Mammoth Cave's most celebrated guide in the nineteenth centyry; Floyd Collins, the famous caver whose death after fifteen days trapped in a crawlway made sensational headlines in 1925; and a host of colorful characters and great cave explorers who found this exotic labyrinthine world fascinating and irresistable.

    ----Jacket copy


"The Longest Cave makes the reader get down on hands and knees, to crawl through the tight spots and the false leads and the boulder slides. But somewhere in the rocks and mud under central Kentucky, he reader becomes self-reliant, begins crawling around the next twist of the cave, begins to care . . . Without preaching, the authors have shown how people can trust one another for a cause they consider worth while. This spare and underwritten book is a primer in self-reliance and self-worth."

    ----The New York Times


The Longest Cave . . . is a splendid armchair challenge, properly made, properly obsessive. For non-cavers who read it, the sensation of being trapped in Mother Earth's vermiform appendix is persuasively real, and the impulse to run gasping into the open air is strong.

    ----Time Magazine


"You don't have to be a spelunker to shiver . . . as the authors face dangerous holes and hidden rivers during their 20-year assult on this underground Everest of tunnels . . . A Kon-Tiki of superman speleology, with a superb payoff chapter."

    ----Kirkus Reviews


The Longest Cave . . . more than measures up as an adventure story, as a dream pursued and, in the end, attained . . . This is the story of the determined group who crawled and slipped and wriggled through dangerous miles of interlocking caves, mapping their finds, failing, persisting, and at last conquering. Bureaucracy, physical hazards, fear were obstacles; overcoming them required ingenuity, stubborness, courage. Cave lore and high risk suspense combine to make this unusual reading."

    ----Publishers Weekly


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IN THE DARK CAVE,
illustrated by Dean Norman.
New York: Star Bright Books, 2005.

Deep in the dark cave
Lived the cave cricket,
Where water came down
Like out of a spigot.

Back in the passage
Lived the cave rat,
Above his head,
Hung down the cave bat.

They all lived together
In that deep dark place,
Far from people
In the earth's embrace.


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