Regardless of how or whether you relate to Buber’s vision, I and Thou makes for a frustrating read. Seemingly simple words are used in new and alien contexts. Solutions are announced rather than derived. Worse, while nominally divided into three parts, I and Thou is really more of a loose collection of 61 aphorisms. Following Buber’s reasoning by comparing his different uses of “word pairs” (e.g., “I-You” in the context of person, or tree, or cat) becomes particularly tricky as a result. Of course, Buber would probably consider this a feature, not a bug; his oracular style seems deliberately designed to provoke a kind of dialogue between the book and the reader. (That’s true even if your end of the dialogue often feels like, “What the f___ are you on about?”) According to Walter Kaufmann, who translated I and Thou‘s most recent edition:
Most of Buber’s German readers would be quite incapable of saying what any number of passages probably mean. The obscurity of the book does not seem objectionable to them: it seems palpable proof of profundity …. It is not even impossible that in places Buber himself was not sure of the exact meaning of his text.
But help exists for obscuro-skeptics. Robert Wood’s 1969 text, Martin Buber’s Ontology, takes a surprisingly analytic approach toward dissecting I and Thou‘s structure. Wood created a chart that indexed and cross-referenced key concepts contained within the book’s 61 sections. In short, he created a Buber spreadsheet! Firmly ensconced in my I-It mode, I used Microsoft Excel to replicate Wood’s chart for the blog-viewing public.
The chart functions as follows: The numbers appearing below any given concept indicate those book sections in which the concept is discussed. Where a particular concept is the primary focus of the book’s section, I’ve placed the numbers in a black box with colored digits. Reading horizontally along the rows, you can see which concepts appear with greatest emphasis in each section. Reading vertically along the columns, you can identify those sections in which a primary concept appears. The spreadsheet is likely useless to anyone who hasn’t read I and Thou. However, it may have utility for any readers trying to divine Buber’s meaning by comparing and contrasting the book’s recurring themes.