The Blagger's Guide To: The Prophet

The late-night handbook on the meaning of life

The Blagger is always wary of titles that claim to be "the most read book of the 20th century, after the Bible". But there's no denying that Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet is a phenomenon. First published in 1923, it is said to have been translated into 50 languages, and sold tens of millions of copies. During the 1960s, it became a handbook to the counter-culture, and its pronouncements on all the big themes of life make it a favourite for weddings and funerals. On Thursday, Oneworld is publishing a major new edition, with annotations by the Gibran expert, Suheil Bushrui.

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Gibran was a Lebanese poet, philosopher and artist, born in the town of Bsharri in 1883. When his impoverished father was imprisoned for embezzlement, his mother set sail for Boston with her four children. Aged 12, Kahlil went to school for the first time, and took art classes, becoming a muse to Fred Holland Day, a Bohemian photographer. After three years back in Beirut studying Arabic, he began painting and writing in Arabic. In 1911, he left Boston for New York, in search of glamour and fame.

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The Prophet is a series of 26 prose poems, delivered by a holy man, Almustafa. The book starts as he is preparing to go home after living in exile on an island for 12 years, (Gibran had been away from Lebanon for 12 years). The islanders ask him what he has learnt about love, family, work and death, and each of the subsequent chapters dispenses various indisputable truths: love involves suffering, children should be given their independence, and so on.

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The book has been seen as a self-help manual, partly because, like horoscopes, the advice is vague enough for the reader to imagine it is targeting them personally. There is also much turning of conventional wisdom on its head: so, freedom is slavery; waking is dreaming; belief is doubt; joy is pain; death is life. This has given potheads plenty to ponder late at night.

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Gibran was exposed to both western and eastern religions, and the book is a skilful blend of teachings from Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam, without promoting any one church. The overall message is a life-affirming reminder that we are all great. This explains its popularity in prisons, among marriage-counsellors and in wedding readings ("Love one another, but make not a bond of love ..."). It has been quoted in manuals on having gay children, and enduring ectopic pregnancy, and has even been used to promote face cream.

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Despite finding the fame he craved, Gibran's mix of idealism, vagueness and sentimentality made him few friends among the avant-garde of 1920s New York. When in Paris, he met the sculptor Rodin, who, he claimed, hailed him as "the William Blake of the 20th century", though some suspect he invented this. By 1931, he was living in one room in Boston, drinking large amounts of Syrian liqueur, which his only surviving sister, Marianna, reportedly sent him by the gallon. He died, aged 48, of cirrhosis of the liver, though fans stressed he had "incipient TB".

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