Enchiridion: The Manual for Living [Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading]

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Countless readers have found peace of mind and gathered inner strength from savoring this collection of Epictetus' sayings. Unlike many ephemeral and faddish dispensations of wisdom, Epictetus' philosophy lacks nothing in depth and complexity. It has been a staple of Western education for centuries, and has exercised a formative influence over such diverse figures as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Christian thinker Augustine, the mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal, and the contemporary American novelist ...
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Enchiridion: The Manual for Living [Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading]

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Countless readers have found peace of mind and gathered inner strength from savoring this collection of Epictetus' sayings. Unlike many ephemeral and faddish dispensations of wisdom, Epictetus' philosophy lacks nothing in depth and complexity. It has been a staple of Western education for centuries, and has exercised a formative influence over such diverse figures as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Christian thinker Augustine, the mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal, and the contemporary American novelist Tom Wolfe. Nearly two millennia after it was written, Encheiridion: The Manual for Living continues to engage and inspire readers today.
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Encheiridion: The Manual for Living of Epictetus (ca 50-135 CE) continues to engage and inspire readers today, nearly two millennia after it was written. Countless readers have found peace of mind and gathered inner strength from savoring this collection of Epictetus' sayings, which is one of the most genuinely therapeutic books in the Western philosophical tradition. Unlike many ephemeral and faddish dispensations of wisdom, Epictetus' philosophy, rightly appreciated, lacks nothing in depth and complexity. Indeed, Epictetus' philosophy, which is epitomized in Encheiridion: The Manual for Living, has been a staple of Western education for centuries, and has exercised a formative influence over such diverse figures as the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, the Christian thinker Augustine, the mathematician-philosopher Blaise Pascal, and the contemporary American novelist Tom Wolfe. Encheiridion: The Manual for Living has been relished by readers throughout the ages and remains vital and refreshing today.

Epictetus, the seminal figure of the late period of Stoic philosophy, was a Greek born in Hierapolis, Phrygia, in southeast Anatolia (Turkey), between 50 and 60 CE. A slave by either birth or acquisition, Epictetus ended up in Rome, where, in accordance with local practice, he was permitted to study and perhaps teach philosophy. Until the days of Frederick Douglass, Epictetus was the only major figure in the Western philosophical tradition to have been a slave, although Plato had come precariously close to being sold into bondage. Many commentators have viewed Epictetus' status as a slave as a salient factor in interpreting the motivations of his philosophy, which advocates resignation and the introspective cultivation of inner moral qualities. But this simplification is unfair to Epictetus. The quest for tranquility is a general feature of the philosophical schools of Roman antiquity and is shared even by Epictetus' inveterate adversaries, the Epicureans.

Although Epictetus did not trace the origins of his thinking to his experience as a slave, he relished the memory insofar as slavery had prepared him for a life that approximated the Socratic, or philosophic, life: scant attention to material needs, devotion to the cultivation of the soul, a fixity of moral purpose, and an unquenchable thirst for the truth.

Of course, slavery did impose an early life of obscurity and submission on Epictetus. It is not imposition but free choice that counts in ethical matters, and Epictetus realized this. He was not proud to have been a slave, to be sure, and he often expressed bitterness, but with a flourish of characteristic equanimity and unprejudiced fairness he absolved his masters of blame. Christian writers of Roman and later times developed a legend about Epictetus, perhaps to make his teachings seem more compatible with Christian doctrines: Supposedly Epictetus had been severely beaten by one of his masters and consequently endured horrendous suffering throughout his life of bondage. Although it is true that Epictetus was lame, it is not known whether this was a congenital condition, the result of grueling drudgery, or an accident. Epictetus suffered from chronic ill health, and despite his success in attracting students, he lived in relative obscurity.

One of Epictetus' masters was Epaphroditus, a significant public figure in Rome and secretary for the Emperor Nero. Epaphroditus grew fond of Epictetus on account of the slave's keen intelligence. Epictetus ultimately was emancipated and went on to live as a free man. Having studied philosophy under Musonius Rufus, a significant late-Stoic thinker, Epictetus developed his own characteristic quasi-systematic philosophy. While in various ways his philosophy is typical of the late Stoa, in many vital respects it is characteristically Epictetus' own.

After his emancipation, Epictetus pursued a life of thinking and teaching. It seems that he was successful in attracting students, among them some prominent Romans, but his time in Rome did not last. In 59 CE, the Emperor Domitian issued a proclamation banning all philosophers from the city of Rome and the entire Italian peninsula. Epictetus, who had obtained quite a following of students-or perhaps one could venture to call them disciples-fled to Nicopolis, a city in Epirus, northeastern Greece. He continued to teach and to exert remarkable influence on those who met him and listened to his philosophical lectures. It is reported that eminent persons traveled great distances to visit Epictetus and receive the benefit of his sagacious advice.

Late in life Epictetus took a wife and adopted a foundling. His motivations for creating a family are not clear: After all, it was Epictetus who insisted that one should be prepared even to abandon wife and children when the divine ship-captain calls him back from the ephemeral journey across life's precarious seaport of trinkets and inessential diversions. Nevertheless, the story itself is not regarded as apocryphal. He spent the rest of his days in Nicopolis, and died in 135 CE.

Epictetus is mentioned favorably by Marcus Aurelius, Cicero (in the Tusculan Disputations), and numerous Christian writers. The Stoics were perhaps the main philosophical school to influence early Christian thinking. Epictetus has exercised considerable influence on Western thinking and education from Renaissance Italy to Puritan New England. Indeed, Stoicism has been revived, often without acknowledgment, throughout the history of Western thought; thinkers like Spinoza, Montaigne, Rousseau, and Goethe are among the towering figures who evidently quenched their inner thirst in the bountiful trough of Stoic wisdom. Catharine Macaulay Graham, the first prominent female historian in the modern Western scholarly tradition, wrote in the eighteenth century of how proud she was to have read Epictetus, and she insisted that a proper education must certainly include the philosophy of Epictetus, along with Plutarch, Seneca, Racine and Molliere-all of which must be perused by the time one is fifteen years old!

Although Epictetus' thinking, like Stoic philosophy in general, has been neglected in recent times, readers have relished Encheiridion: The Manual for Living throughout the ages. While systematic scholars may scoff at Epictetus' guru-like qualities and Encheiridion: The Manual for Living may attract more backpack philosophizers than scholars or historians of philosophy, a New Age portrait of Epictetus would be missing the point. Epictetus requires full attention to be understood; once comprehended, his teachings are known to have a therapeutic effect-in the broad sense of the word-which is exactly what philosophy as a way of life is supposed to do. Moreover, Epictetus' salient influence on some of the most important thinkers of different eras testifies to the fecundity and insightfulness of his teachings.

Encheiridion: The Manual for Living is a collection of lectures, some in the form of aphorisms and allegories, others resembling essay-like arguments with some of the premises suppressed. There is remarkable unity and coherence throughout the work, which guides the reader toward the proper moral life, the happiest life a human being can live.

Encheiridion: The Manual for Living was not written by Epictetus himself for, like Socrates, Epictetus did not write. One may suspect that Epictetus' preferred emphasis on practical or applied moral philosophy, which promotes a direct line of communication from teacher to disciple, is not conducive to being put into writing. Historian Arrian (ca 92 - ca 175 CE) recorded Epictetus' teachings. In addition to Encheiridion: The Manual for Living, a collection of Epictetus' Discourses and fragments have also survived.

Arrian, whose full Latin name is Flavius Arrianus Xenophon, studied under Epictetus in Nicopolis. Judging from Arrian's historical output, his imitation of the classical Attic prose style, and his choice of subject matter, which ranges from the life and sayings of the sage Epictetus to the history of the military campaigns of Alexander the Great, he appears to have held the ancient Athenian writer Xenophon as his model. This is reassuring because scholars consider Xenophon (unlike Plato) to be an accurate and painstaking recorder of Socrates' teachings. Xenophon's writings on Socrates, which include the Memorabilia of Socrates and a Socratic Apology, offer greater insights into Socrates' thinking and habits than the more charismatic writings of Plato. At any rate, it is Arrian we trust when we probe into the teachings of Epictetus. Other sources include indirect testimonials by other writers, most of which heap praise on Epictetus. Unlike Epicurus, Epictetus did not inspire indignation and controversy, and his name does not turn up in vitriolic polemics or angry denunciations by other thinkers.

Stoicism as a distinct philosophical approach came into existence in the third century CE, and Epictetus belongs to the last stage of Stoicism. The early Stoa included such figures as Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus; the middle Stoa included Panaetius and Poseidonius; and the late Stoa gave us Marcus Aurelius and Seneca as well as Epictetus. There are differences between the various stages of Stoic thinking as well as between specific philosophers within each period, but there are also decisive, and ultimately defining, similarities among them, as well as an overall continuity of principles and interests.

Epictetus has been read and admired for his practical philosophy-his keen moral precepts and urgent admonitions that are meant to direct the student toward the good and happy life. There is a system behind his moral thought, even if it is not immediately obvious. Epictetus had been trained in logic, and the humiliation he suffered for offering a self-contradicting response to one of Musonius' questions was deeply ingrained in his memory. Stoic thinking has a quasi-systematic construction: Like the universe or nature, from which the Stoics take their bearings, thinking must reflect and unravel the successively arranged, cosmic or objective layers of God, reason, the laws of nature and providence, and the rules for the good-i.e., moral-life. These reference points correspond roughly to what we might consider the philosophy of religion, logic, physics, and ethics. Of course, how these fields were described, their relationships with each other, and their relative emphasis varied from one Stoic thinker to another. If anything is missing from this framework, it is political philosophy-to the extent that this field does not overlap with ethics or normative thought. But this gap is not surprising if one considers the mood of resignation and introspection that pervades the philosophical schools of ancient Rome.

Epictetus' thinking exemplifies many principal tenets of Stoicism, but it also stands apart both thematically and stylistically. Like most Stoics, Epictetus emphasizes practical philosophy, as evidenced by his distinct preference for delivering lectures to students and offering lessons that can be anthologized as manuals or guides to the good life. This preoccupation with moral precepts, however, does not reflect what we would now consider an examination of metaethics, a systematic investigation of the preconditions and subject matter of moral thinking. Epictetus' sayings collected in the Encheiridion do not present a systematic normative theory, but instead serve to inspire and offer practical guidance. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to think of Epictetus' Encheiridion: The Manual for Living as a mere collection of do-it-yourself ethical instructions. Encheiridion: A Manual for Living assumes a deep connection between the study of nature and the study of ethics. Epictetus' teachings are also premised on the Socratic thesis that the rational comprehension of nature is the precondition for the human pursuit of the good life.

Epictetus' practical or moral philosophy is underpinned not only by a natural philosophy but also by logic. No lectures on logic or natural philosophy by Epictetus have survived, and it appears that he preferred to avoid those subjects. Nevertheless, Epictetus' practical philosophy makes sense within the context of a broader Stoic logic and natural philosophy. The need for the study of logic pays tribute to the fact that the universe is the work of reason, and thus can be understood sufficiently only by means of rational apprehension; lapses in logical thinking are not simply technical failures in a game of postulated rules, but a sure sign that one has strayed far from the path of the truth. (Epictetus could not resist telling his disciples how his first corrective humiliation as a student had been occasioned by a blunder in logic.) Physics follows logic and paves the way for ethics since the study of nature reveals the truths on which the proper ethical life can be based and supported. This in turn implies that Epictetus' moral precepts have a rational justification, are provable, can be supported with explanations, and are based on a deeper theory, even if this deeper theory is not stated explicitly.

The Stoics' readiness to proffer the moral aspect of their philosophy even without an explication of its foundations constitutes a democratization of thinking that was to prove a decisive influence on the subsequent history of Western thought. If it is possible to jump straight into practical philosophy, then even those who cannot grasp the philosophical analysis of a Plato or Aristotle, or who do not have time to study philosophy in depth, have a chance to grope toward life's supreme goal.

There is an additional reason for proceeding to the moral philosophy even before the philosophical foundations have been solidified: The task of living the good life in accordance with nature, which is the same as the moral life, is so urgent that it cannot wait until the underlying philosophy has been understood. Thus Epictetus imparted his teachings not only to other philosophers and advanced students but to anyone and everyone who happened to come to him to learn.

The deeper Stoic theory in the area of ethics is natural law. The universe is a meaningful, goal-directed system which, approached through the medium of reason, will yield all the possible truths, including the truths that govern morality. Natural-law theory has had an illustrious history. Although it could not withstand the assault of modern science, which disavows the premise of an "intelligent," or goal-directed, providential universe, the influence of natural law thinking is evident in so seminal a document as the American Declaration of Independence; whether it is rhetorical or not, the admission that there are self-evident truths discernable in the light of "God's" nature is a straightforward reference to this tenet of Stoicism. This teaching proved to be so influential that key figures in the transition to modernity like Hobbes and Grotius continued to use the language of natural law even as they subverted it.

The influence of Socrates on Epictetus, as on most Stoics, is pervasive. Like Socrates, Epictetus uses the dialectical method of question, answer, and refutation in an effort to elicit the truth that is innate to human reason. He also deploys Socratic paradoxes-as, for example, the claim that no one who chooses to be vicious can be choosing what he truly wishes to do. Moreover, like Socrates, Epictetus has an underlying ethical purpose-aimed at discovering the truth and educating students-that drives the whole process, guarantees lofty aspirations, and legitimizes what would otherwise be unethical and treacherous moves on the teacher's part, such as occasional recourse to rhetorical gambits, humiliation of the student, and gratuitous displays of intelligence. Epictetus also reiterates many of Socrates' teachings, the most important being the identification of the moral life, rightly understood, with the good or happy life (known as "Socratic utilitarianism"). Like Socrates, Epictetus is a rationalist, trusting that human reason, a "mirror of nature," is the naturally appropriate instrument for the discovery of the truths that nature alone can furnish to the inquirer. Like most Stoics, Epictetus is also clearly impressed by the example of the Socratic life: The self-sufficient, fiercely dedicated, itinerant philosopher is seen as the ultimate role model. In his creative imitation of the Socratic example, Epictetus steers clear of the Cynics' interpretation of the Socratic life as a lifelong act of know-nothing rejection of conventions; at the other extreme, Epictetus also avoids the Academic school's emphasis on the inconclusiveness of Socratic dialogues, which usually results in philosophical skepticism.

It is also worth noting the failure of Socratic teachings to exercise influence on Epictetus in at least one decisive respect: There is no immortal soul in Epictetus' teachings. It might not be as clear as Plato would have us believe that Socrates exemplified the belief in the immortality of the soul (Plato's Apology concludes agnostically on this score), but at least we find the Platonic Socrates preoccupied with proving that the human soul is immortal. The acrimonious quarrel between the Stoics and their principal rivals, the Epicureans, might also indicate that a presumption of human immortality is in order, but the immortal soul does not make an appearance in Epictetus' teachings.

Another Socratic tenet that is glaringly absent from Epictetus' teachings is the claim that philosophical reason is somehow aligned with Eros, both in the fabric of the totality of beings and in the human soul.

Epictetus deploys a battery of impressive techniques that are facilitated by his typically Hellenistic syncretism. He likes to use paradoxes to elicit his students' interest in preparing for the final assault on the true nature of right and wrong. There is also a relentless drive operating throughout his teachings that is motivated by the highest purpose of discovering and preparing for the good life; this impetus is tempered by the inevitable Hellenistic mood of resignation which counsels ataraxia or imperturbability-one of the few subjects on which Epictetus is in agreement with the materialist Epicureans. Epictetus also likes to use a polemical style-provocations, taunts, invectives, puns, and barrages of rhetorical questions-a shock-therapy onslaught that engages and exercises the mind and commands the student's attention. Epictetus assumes a spiritual bond between teacher and student, but the formal distance between the two is not to be breached. Epictetus also employs edifying tales and, in the spirit of his times, such tales often hint at elaborate allegories. Notwithstanding his rationalism, Epictetus is not at all averse to taking numerological and other mystical approaches, reaching in one direction to Plato's Pythagoreanism and in the other direction reflecting the escapist mood of Roman times.

Epictetus abandoned the morally irresponsible outlook he had when he had been a Cynic for the true and lofty teachings of Stoicism. "No more Cynic shamelessness," he is reported to have exclaimed. One of his principal preoccupations, with which Encheiridion: The Manual for Living opens, is that while nature has seen to it that we have control of the best part of ourselves-reason-this is the only part over which our control is self-dependent and self-directed. Consequently, barring rare misfortune, we cannot be deprived of reason or its attendant high pleasures no matter what calamities may befall us. Thus it is appropriate and indeed morally mandated that we regard reason as the one thing in the universe which is of practical interest to us. Cultivation of and reliance on reason, and if need be, on reason alone, is the chief end in life: It is a moral imperative because divine nature has armed us with this intelligent self-regarding and self-sufficient participation in the cosmic Reason. The life of reason also results in the happiest life possible because we are far less likely to be deprived of our reason than of anything else in the world and because the pleasures of the mind are the highest possible enjoyments a human being can experience. Life would be pointless without reason.

It follows that nothing but reason should really matter to us. There is no need to despair and lament when fate, oppression, or the malice of people deprive us of material goods since nothing and no one can take from us the supreme good that is reason.

Epictetus advises us to live life in accordance with nature. The reward from acting on the basis of what we learn from closely observing nature is immediate: a life of moral excellence that offers happiness, or at least a bulwark against pain.

The proper purpose in life, providentially decreed by nature, is to enthrone and preserve reason as the sovereign ruler of the senses and the desires. Accordingly, one should always be circumspect and moderate in enjoying pleasures and material goods, especially since one cannot exercise ultimate control over them. One should cultivate the rational inner life, and material goods and the lower pleasures of the body should be regarded as contingent, ephemeral, and ultimately a matter of indifference. This is the best way to protect oneself from the unpredictable ravages of fortune and the pain that flows from life's inevitable tragedies.

Many readers may conclude that Epictetus is advocating a cruel ethic-one that relegates even family and friends to a realm of relative indifference, a self-centered rationalist quietism or perhaps even an ethical egoism, according to which one's highest moral duty is to oneself. This interpretation misses the mark, however. Epictetus is not motivated by selfishness or self-interest; rather, he entrusts the moral wholesomeness of human affairs to the unerring blueprint and providential order of nature. What God and nature intended provides the standard both in truth and in ethics, and it is universally evident that natural and divine intent have apportioned to human beings a sovereign mind, a frail existence, tentative possession of material goods, and a besieged "enjoyment" of human relations. Although our everyday existence entices us into vain attachments, we should know better, and the supreme human instrument-reason-offers us the insight we need to resist.

When Epictetus advises that one should not grow too fond of "wife and child" and that one should always be ready to bury them without mourning (though making sure to keep up public appearances), he is not offering an existentialist farewell to objective truths or a grudging nod to nihilistic apathy. Rather, he has something else in mind: God and nature give us life as a temporary loan, and it is only proper that everything should be returned immediately when the lender calls in the claim. There is no fair contract of reciprocal obligations here because one side, nature or God, is vastly unequal and gives graciously without expecting to gain in return. Our gratitude should remain undiminished even as we must always expect that the divine lender will ask for repayment of the borrowed life. One who mourns and will not let go of what he or she has grown fond of is both foolish (in failing to comprehend the operations of the vast whole) and unfair (in expecting to keep what belongs to another). Bearing this argument in mind, we see that one apparent contradiction after another disappears from Epictetus' teachings.

Epictetus expects us to apply this approach to ourselves as much as to our dealings with others. We should not permit ourselves to become attached to our transitory lives. The Stoic authorization of suicide-which scandalized Christian thinkers-follows from this argument. If the cost of going on living is degradation, or if one's capacity for rational thought has been lost, one is morally obligated to commit suicide. Of course, one should commit suicide only when it is morally advisable, otherwise it is a matter of cowardice. The exact details as to when suicide is morally mandated are not fully worked out but it is assumed that the rational agent will know when it is morally right to no longer cling to this ephemeral life. This is precisely what the imprisoned Socrates did when he drank the hemlock. The Stoics themselves have quite a few celebrated suicides among their ranks.

We should also keep in mind that Epictetus does not suggest that we should be boorish, unaffectionate, anti-social, or indifferent citizens.

One might wonder how Epictetus' philosophy can promise happiness. As in other philosophical schools of the same period, the whole point is that it is precisely happiness and liberation from pain and anguish that the true philosophy offers. The pleasures of the mind are considered the highest-although the Stoics do not emphasize pleasure as much as the Socratic writers of the classical era. The consternation that attends life's losses and frustrations disappears as soon as one understands the fabric of the cosmos.

Epictetus anticipates one of the greatest achievements in the history of normative theory: the moral philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Epictetus expects us to be conscientious in discharging our ordinary duties toward others and toward society even though we have no expectation of pleasant consequences from our dealings with others. To some extent Epictetus is saying that moral duty is not a matter of promoting a collective good but is instead a matter of applying rational thinking and practically implementing the conclusions of a logical argument. We are moral beings insofar as we are rational agents. Although this may sound Kantian, there is also a crucial difference: Epictetus' philosophy is informed by natural law while Kant's is not. Another distinction perhaps is that Epictetus does not insist on purging all pleasurable feelings from the rational fulfillment of one's duties, whereas Kant is uncompromisingly austere in this regard (at least on one reading of Kant's moral philosophy).

Epictetus' philosophy oscillates between optimism and pessimism. His philosophy is pessimistic in his dour (albeit realistic) assessment of the limitations of a human life; as well as his apprehension that the animal in human nature encroaches menacingly on the truly human, the rational, element in us. At the same time, however, Epictetus is one of the most optimistic Stoic philosophers in that he expects human beings to be able to act so as to enjoy the good life while remaining faithful to their rational humanity. Epictetus expects us to succeed in this regard, promoting a life of true happiness and tranquility even in the midst of terror and uncertainty about the future.

There is an old story about Epictetus that is most certainly apocryphal, yet seldom is a patently false anecdote so revealing. As the story goes, Epictetus' master was abusing him, twisting his leg to the breaking point. Epictetus protested, but when the inevitable happened and his master broke his leg, he simply said in a perfectly matter-of-fact manner, "I told you that you were going to break my leg, didn't I?" There is no truth to this story since the evidence suggests that Epictetus was treated fairly well when he was a slave. Nevertheless, the anecdote captures certain essential components of Epictetus' philosophy of life that continue to attract and inspire: his serene rationalism, his level-headed grasp of what is important in life, his blending of wise resignation with a higher moral sensitivity, his synoptic view of the logical scheme of nature and humanity's place in it, and his promise that a good person can lead a decent and happy life even in the midst of turmoil.

Odysseus Makridis received his Ph.D. from Brandeis University. He is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Fairleigh Dickinson University, in Madison, New Jersey.
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