The latest in my reading series "Books With Titles That Get Me Funny Looks On The Bus" -- all part of an ongoing project to keep my own special brandThe latest in my reading series "Books With Titles That Get Me Funny Looks On The Bus" -- all part of an ongoing project to keep my own special brand of social awkwardness thriving.
Cheeky title aside, this is an interesting look at the various ways in which sexuality informs (and warps) our lives. In particular, it is geared towards readers in committed relationships struggling with the mundane, powerful realities of everyday life that can make trying to remain a sexual being with the person you love so difficult. To quote: "To fall in love with another is to bless him or her with an idea of who he or she should be in our eyes; it is to attempt to incarnate perfection across a limitless range of activities (how to educate the children and what sort of house to buy) to the lowest (where the sofa should go and how to spend Tuesday evening). In love we are therefore never far from the possibility of a painful or irritating betrayal of one of our ideals. Once we are involved in a relationship, there is no longer any such thing as a minor detail."
Botton's strident call for an outright ban of pornography is compelling but will make anyone opposed to censorship deeply uncomfortable. More interesting (and, perhaps, feasible) is his suggestion that we might, like Christian artists during the Renaissance who used sexuality in their paintings and sculptures to make lofty principles more appealing, start creating a new kind of pornography with artistic merit. Throughout the book Botton argues that our society has tried to repress and ignore the nature of sexuality, ensuring the kind of frustrations that come with unrealistic expectations.
At the core of this book is the basic idea that our sexual natures are, more often than not, a source of discomfort, pain, awkwardness, loneliness, disappointment, failure, etc. The list of miseries is long and will be familiar to anyone. Still, sex and our need for it are here to stay. “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," the philosopher Pascal famously wrote. Sex is probably the main reason for this. But, as Botton writes in his conclusion, "sex gets us out of the house and out of ourselves." For while sex may be at the root of a great deal of pain and wasted time/energy, it is also the heart of our greatest pleasures -- not only (or even primarily) the act itself, but all the wonders we have created in our efforts to get some. ...more
Sometimes it feels like I've been reading too much for too many years. All through high school and into college, I could engage with the story, the chSometimes it feels like I've been reading too much for too many years. All through high school and into college, I could engage with the story, the characters, the world of a book on a level I can't seem to achieve anymore. That doesn't happen much these days. I appreciate books, even love them, but I do so with the jaded distance of a museum curator approaching a painting.
As a result, I've become less interested over time in what I think of as the craft of transparency: books that are so impeccably executed that you forget you're reading a book. Not that I've abandoned (or will ever completely abandon) this kind of book (I recently read Pride & Prejudice for the fifth or sixth time and loved it) but as transparent, smooth, seamless writing becomes more and more prevalent, it interests me less and less. I've been thinking on this subject a lot lately and could easily spend a few thousand words trying to work through a variety of ideas but here I'm only interested in explaining why I loved Orlando as much as I did . . .
Freewheeling and wacky may not be words we usually use to describe Woolf's work but I think they apply to Orlando. Not only is the story deliciously odd (an apparently immortal aristocrat with poetic ambitions who changes gender about a third of the way through the story) but Woolf's writing employs tricks and devices from just about every literary era. She mocks the length of her own sentences, laments the lack of action taken by her main character, crafts puckish aphorisms, digresses on various topics . . . It's a treat and a joy and I found myself savoring many of its pages over and over again. At one point I actually laughed out loud in the middle of a particularly audacious page before closing the book for a few moments so I could shake my head and exclaim, "What the fuck?" I was so awestruck, I literally had tears in my eyes for a few seconds. I like it when a book is so damned good that I have to stop reading it for awhile.
This is a mischievous novel and -- it can't be said enough -- a lot of fun to read. I've been meaning to read it ever since I first watched the Sally Potter adaptation starring Tilda Swinton twenty-some years ago. I've watched the film many times (it's a personal favorite), always feeling guilty that I still hadn't read the book. Now I'm actually glad I waited as long as I did since it reminded me that there are still plenty of surprises to be found between the covers of a book.
**** Some favorite quotations:
"The poet's then in the highest office of all . . . His words reach where others fall short. A silly song of Shakespeare's has done more for the poor and the wicked than all the preachers and philanthropists of the world." (173)
"Candid by nature, and averse to all kinds of equivocation, to tell lies bored her. It seemed to her a roundabout way of going to work." (156)
"Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us . . . Thus there is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking." (188)
"For if it is rash to walk into a lion's den unarmed, rash to navigate the Atlantic in a rowing boat, rash to stand on one foot on the top of St Paul's, it is still more rash to go home alone with a poet." (203)
"A man who can destroy illusions is both beast and flood. Illusions are to the soul what atmosphere is to the earth . . . The earth we walk on is a parched cinder. It is marl we tread and fiery cobbles scorch our feet. By the truth we are undone. Life is a dream. 'Tis waking that kills us. He who robs us of our dreams robs us of our life." (203)
"We write, not with our fingers, but with the whole person. The nerve which controls the pen winds itself about every fibre of our being, threads the heart, pierces the liver." (243)
"In fact, though their acquaintance had been so short, they had guessed, as always happens between lovers, everything of any importance about each other in two seconds at the utmost, and it now remained only to fill in such unimportant details as what they were called; where they lived; and whether they were beggars or people of substance." (251)
"She was married, true: but if one's husband was always sailing round Cape Horn, was it marriage? If one liked him, was it marriage? If one liked other people, was it marriage? And finally, if one still wished, more than anything in the whole world, to write poetry, was it marriage? She had her doubts." (264)
"Life, it has been agreed by everyone whose opinion is worth consulting, is the only fit subject for novelist or biographer; life, the same authorities have decided, has nothing whatever to do with sitting still in a chair and thinking." (267)
"For she had a great variety of selves to call upon, for more than we have been able to find room for, since a biography is considered complete if its merely accounts for six or seven selves whereas a person may well have as many thousand." (309)...more
An unusual book -- all the main characters are in their 70s or 80s and most of them receive an unusual (for its truthfulness) prank phone call: "Remem An unusual book -- all the main characters are in their 70s or 80s and most of them receive an unusual (for its truthfulness) prank phone call: "Remember you must die." The set-up sounds like it has the makings of a murder mystery but it is nothing of the kind. Instead, it is a closely observed comedy of manners and a pretty funny one at that. I enjoyed this a lot, which is saying something since I started it directly after Jane Bowles' Two Serious Ladies and most books would have suffered by comparison. I especially enjoyed the character of Alec Warner, a retired sociologist who keeps a carefully cross-referenced library of notecards on the actions and reactions of the elderly friends in his circle. He goes so far as to try to get people to take their own temperature before, during, and after discussions that he knows will be unpleasant.
Some favorite moments:
"it's difficult," said Miss Taylor, "for people of advanced years to start remembering they must die. It is best to form the habit while young."
* * *
"Her face puckered in folds under the desk-lamp. Two thoughts intruded simultaneously. One was: I am really very tired; and the other: I am not a bit tired, I am charging ahead with great energy. She lifted the pen again and continued to put the wavering marks across the page."
* * *
"She always *was* a bitch," said Godfrey, as if her death were the ultimate proof of it.
* * *
Henry Mortimer said: 'If I had my life over again I should form the habit of nightly composing myself to thoughts of death. I would practise, as it were, the remembrance of death. There is no other practice which so intensifies life. Death, when it approaches, ought not to take one by surprise. It should be part of the full expectancy of life. Without an ever-present sense of death life is insipid. You might as well live on the whites of eggs.'...more
One of my favorite books. A silly, funny, clever, one-of-a-kind exploration of how the method of telling the story can make the story. Queneau gives 9One of my favorite books. A silly, funny, clever, one-of-a-kind exploration of how the method of telling the story can make the story. Queneau gives 99 short accounts of a mundane event in as many different styles ranging from epic to haiku. A new edition has just come out (with new "exercises" by Queneau and others), so I'll be re-reading soon and will re-review as well....more
This might be the only (so-called) self-help book that includes a quote from The Wire at the beginning of a chapter -- and surely that's a good sign.
IThis might be the only (so-called) self-help book that includes a quote from The Wire at the beginning of a chapter -- and surely that's a good sign.
I'm not someone who reads a lot of self-help books. I don't read them at all, really, though living in Southern California for a couple decades meant inevitable contact with self-help gurus and enthusiasts. Positive thinking, visualization and imitating the habits of successful people have always struck me as somehow deficient tactics but I never really bothered to think through my objections with any degree of thoroughness -- let alone formulate an alternative. In fact, if anything, I have been prone to blaming myself for not feeling able to buy into such ideas.
I would have been content if this book had been what I expected: an acerbic expose of self-help hokum. Instead, it proved to be much more: a cogent synthesis of a number of philosophical and psychological notions and approaches that offer a healthier, more realistic, way of living a happier life. Drawing from Stoicism (the real thing, not the straw man version most of us hear about), Buddhism, and psychological studies that are critical of so-called positive thinking, what I found most striking about The Antidote was how often it seemed to articulate and complete my own half-formed ideas. Forcing yourself to "think positive" often makes failure that much more devastating; setting long-terms goals often means scuttling your well-being in the drive to achieve (and doubling down at the very moment it might make sense to abandon a bad idea); trying to feel motivated can create an extra thing to be frustrated and depressed about; there is comfort and relief to be found in contemplating worst-case-scenarios and even death itself rather than trying to emphasize the positive at all costs . . . and on and on.
To be clear: the approaches (note the plural) outlined in this book are not meant to help you achieve happiness in some defined, end-of-the-line, concrete sense. Instead it is a toolkit, a series of ways to approach life more realistically and genuinely. Somehow the positive-thought advocates have created the sense that their approach is about embracing life when, in fact, the opposite is true: their approach involves ignoring and denying much of what makes life what it is. What this book tries to do is offer some ways of finding happiness (rather than Being Happy) by taking in the totality of our lives rather than filtering out whatever we perceive as an obstacle to our goals. ...more
Terrific little book that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: offer a general introduction to the various ideas and expressions of melancholy Terrific little book that accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do: offer a general introduction to the various ideas and expressions of melancholy the world over. A lively read filled with nuanced insights and explanations, what I loved most about this book is that it first clarified my understanding of (and thinking about) melancholy and then had me scribbling all kinds of titles and names (of other books, films, songs, museums, photographers, etc) to seek out. The ideal jumping-off point for an exploration of this complex, misunderstood frame of mind . . ....more