If anything uncontroversial can be said about Sam Harris, it's that his work never fails to inspire strong and colorful opinions from just about everyone who encounters it. Depending on whom you ask, he may be one of the more brilliant thinkers around, a complete hack, or any of a mind-boggling array of subtle gradations in between. All of these views have arguable merit, and there will be many who go into Waking Up with a panoply of preconceived notions about what they might find here. Much has been made of Harris' long-known affinity for meditation and Eastern spirituality, and his perpetual insistence that even the staunchest, most skillful rationalist neglects these at some considerable peril. Another Harris mainstay, most notably exemplified in The Moral Landscape, is a tendency to sharply challenge the conventional wisdom on where the boundaries of scientific inquiry truly lie, in what may at times strike some readers as a maddeningly quixotic attempt to reverse the long-standing unfashionable status of a rather comprehensive form of positivism. It will not shock anyone familiar with the author that Waking Up brings all of these threads together, and the reader's satisfaction with the result, or lack thereof, will follow somewhat predictably, but it would be a mistake to avoid the book on that basis alone.
For those unfamiliar enough with Sam Harris to make much of the preceding paragraph, this volume can be summarized simply enough: it is a warning that most of us are missing important basic facts about how to live well, presented for the rationalist. It is an attempt to demonstrate that most of us, believer and skeptic alike, have failed to fully integrate a number of demonstrable truths about the mind into our understanding of ourselves; that such an integration constitutes an essential component of our day-to-day psychological hygiene; and that an enormous wealth of credible, relevant, and empirically verifiable information to assist in this project can indeed be found strewn through certain traditional spiritual domains, particularly within Buddhism.
None of this may initially seem particularly revelatory--indeed, in certain quarters, such ideas may now be nearing the point of cliche--and yet, this book is truly important. Historically and still today, wherever rationalists gather to discuss the possible value of introspective disciplines of attention, many pernicious misconceptions abound. It often seems that the nature and potential of these practices are misinterpreted at the most basic levels, owing to an alarming lack of substantial attainment on the part of the academics, researchers, and writers who tend to be responsible for framing all discussions on the subject. Even those who give themselves over to a committed long-term effort to build skill to the point of being able to speak from a position of first-hand experience invariably fail to do much more than scratch the surface, and as a result, the collective understanding in this area always seems somewhat adrift. Scientists and rationalists of all stripes are now willing to pay serious attention to the potential of direct introspective techniques, but lack direction from one of their own regarding just how this might best be approached, and just what one might thereby hope to achieve. What has long been needed is for an intelligible writer to come forward and present a clear rationalist picture of the most profound possibilities of meditation, while also drawing upon a reasonable grasp of the methods and institutional culture of modern science, to thereby offer a more complete picture of how all of this should be integrated, and how we might most fruitfully attempt to evolve the overall state of human knowledge and ability in these areas. Various beloved figures of one stripe or another have tangentially approached this endeavor throughout recent history--Alan Watts comes to mind--but Waking Up may actually be the first book to directly and systematically tackle it, while taking full advantage of the important contextual clues afforded us by modern neuroscience.
Waking Up is, of course, not a perfect work. Those considering a purchase should note that much of the material has been adapted from content already freely available on Sam's blog. Indeed, that is at once among its most noteworthy strengths and weaknesses; Waking Up appears to be the book the author has always most longed to write, having at times been so impatient that he couldn't resist writing much of it on the fly as his career has unfolded year by year. Those who have closely followed Sam Harris should therefore be aware that, of just 200 pages in total, a solid third or more may be well familiar already. When one then additionally considers that the first chapter (which makes up fully one quarter of the book) has been freely published online, there may be a tendency to feel somewhat cheated. In my opinion, such a feeling would be unwarranted, as the remaining chapters nonetheless manage to pack lots of interesting detail not available elsewhere into a deceptively small volume.
The bottom line is that, whatever one's opinion of Harris and his affinity for positivistic reclamations of those areas of intellectual life that have been most carefully cordoned off, and whatever one's disposition toward meditation or introspective spirituality, Waking Up does something important and arguably unprecedented, and is full of information that every thoughtful person should at least consider. Please go into it with as few preconceived notions as possible, and be demanding of yourself. Seriously entertain all of the major points Harris makes here, even if you've found his previous arguments on other topics to be morally or intellectually bankrupt. I find the vast majority of Waking Up to be cogently argued, but even were it not, there are too many truly valuable tidbits of genuine wisdom lurking here for the book to be entirely written off or ignored by even its harshest would-be detractors--and its brevity and relatively low price tag ensure that there's not terribly much to lose in any case. Personally, I have always found value in the great majority of Sam's work, but he has generally been regarded, perhaps rightly, as one prominent voice within a chorus of similar ones. Will history remember this as the book that proved him a truly unique and irreplaceable contributor to the discourse? It may sound like laughable hyperbole or a marketing soundbite, but I honestly suspect the answer may very well be "yes".