The insight and mystery of Everybody’s Autobiography by Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein was an American writer and art collector who moved to Paris as an adult and there established one of the world’s most famous salons, a name given to places where influential artists and thinkers once gathered to socialise and converse, share ideas and inspiration. Those who gathered with Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice Toklas, and whose art and writing she collected and/or inspired, included painters Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Picabia, Thornton Wilder, Ezra Pound, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Stein and Toklas spent World War I in France, acting as a hospital supply unit, and stayed in country France during WWII despite both being Jews; they and the art collection all survived the war.

Stein published more than 20 books and numerous plays over her lifetime but in 1933 when she was almost 60, Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas became her first popular success. With sardonic literary sleight-of-hand, she had told her own life story through the voice of her partner and this was the book that made her famous. It’s arguably her most readable work and resulted in a year-long lecture tour of America in 1934-5 that cemented her celebrity status.

I have no idea how this book fell into my hands as a teenager or why it captivated me. Maybe it was the audacious trick of writing your autobiography using your own partner as a sort of puppet. Maybe I was agape at the accounts of all these incredibly famous historical figures actually gathering somewhere to talk with friends, about art. The closest experience I had was university tutorial groups where I thought most of my fellow students were meatheads. Maybe it was the arch tone and the style utterly unlike anything I’d ever read. At any rate, it fired my imagination and a sense of nostalgia for nothing I had ever known and has survived years of successive culls, remaining one of the few non-children’s books in my more-or-less permanent collection.

Many years later in a moment of serendipity I recognised her name on the cover of a different book: Everybody’s Autobiography. 

As its intro explained, not everyone had loved The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas. Stein pissed a lot of her friends off, chronicling them in totally unvarnished terms. And Stein herself was somewhat troubled by the unaccustomed celebrity it had brought after years of her work being published. She was having a bit of an identity crisis and, it seemed, needed to face herself head-on and not use Alice B. Toklas as a kind of invisibility cloak.

Everybody’s Autobiography is both an account of the lecture tour through Stein’s home country of America that the success of the first Autobiography had brought, and this personal need to set the record straight. So it’s closer in format to a straight autobiography.

If you could ever call it “straight” when it performs another twist of identity in calling her own story “everybody’s”. And when its stated commitment to stay in the “present” means, in practice, a ramble through memories and the reflections they spark, in the form of largely unpunctuated streams of consciousness, pulled up with a jerk every time she needs to re-centre in the time and place of the story.

It’s challenging to read; much more so than the first Autobiography, which stuck to plain-ish English and punctuation; but it’s also much more intimate, and allows you further into Stein’s head. Sometimes with the pithy, the funny, the relatable:

When there is a great deal of unemployment and misery you can never find anybody to work for you.
~
Everybody knows if you are too careful you are so occupied in being careful that you are sure to stumble over something.
~
Native always means people who belong somewhere else, because they had once belonged somewhere. That shows that the white race does not really think they belong anywhere because they think of everybody else as native.
~
The French women always used to say that a woman’s silhouette should change every ten years. It should not grow less it should grow more and mostly it does.
~
Sound can be a worry to anyone particularly when it is the sound of a human voice.
~
I do want to get rich but I never want to do what there is to do to get rich.
~
I like to be driven around if I do not have to go inside of anything, and be shown anything that I do not much care for that, but I do like driving and I like seeing country.

Other times, deeper into what she’s thinking, and some of it is so deep I conclude she’s allowed to forget about commas, since she’s grappling with concepts altogether bigger.

Of genius:

Being a genius is not a worrisome thing, because it is so occupying, and then when it is successful it is not a worrisome thing because it is successful, but a successful thing does not occupy you as an unsuccessful thing does, certainly not, and anyway a genius need not think, because if he does think he has to be wrong or right he has to argue or decide, and after all he might just as well not do that, nor need he be himself inside him. And when a dog gets older there is less of it and it does not worry him. When a genius gets older is there less of it and does it then not worry him.

Of ideas:

The real ideas are not the relation of human being as groups but a human being to himself inside him and that is an idea that is more interesting than humanity in groups, after all the minute that there are a lot of them they do not do it for themselves but somebody does it for them and that is a damn sight less interesting.

Of our relationship with time:

Human beings have to live dogs too so as not to know that time is passing, that is the whole business of living to go on so they will not know time is passing, that is why they get drunk that is why they like to go to war, during a war there is the most complete absence of the sense that time is passing. After all that is what life is and that is the reason there is no Utopia, little or big young or old dog or man everybody wants every minute so filled that they are not conscious of that minute passing. It’s just as well they do not think about it you have to be a genius to live in it and know it to exist in it and express it to accept it and deny it by creating it.

Other passages deal with writing as a craft and directly with her sometimes alienating style.

They asked me to tell why an author like myself can become popular … writing what anybody feels they are understanding and so they get tired of that, anybody can get tired of anything everybody can get tired of something and so they do not know it but they get tired of feeling they are understanding and so they take pleasure in having something that they feel they are not understanding … my writing is clear as mud, but mud settles and clear streams run on and disappear, perhaps that is the reason but really there is no reason except that the earth is round and that no one knows the limits of the universe.

Yet while she defends it, she still, touchingly, after so many books and so much fame, shows that as a writer she still experiences what just about all writers do: self-doubt.

Of course naturally in the meanwhile I went on writing, I had always wanted it all to be common-place and simple anything that I am writing and then I get worried lest I have succeeded and it is too common-place and too simple so much so that it is nothing, anybody says it is not so, it is not too common-place and not too simple but do they know anyway I have always all the time thought it was so and hoped it was so and then worried lest it was so. I am worried again now lest it is so.

I can’t really sort through my reasons any better than I did when I was a teenager, apart from recognising the echo of truth in her words: sometimes what we need most is what we don’t quite understand. To test those unknown limits of the universe.

But like a glutton for punishment without punctuation, I will seek more out, hungry for more knowledge about the extraordinary lives of Stein and Toklas. Starting with the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook. Yes! Toklas wrote her own books, including a cookbook. Which has a chapter on how to cook for famous painters. Don’t you just love it…

 

Advertisements

The 57 books I read in 2018, my top 10 and holiday reading recommendations

Fiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Green: WA writers, because reading local is awesome.
  • Red: Children’s books, because kids need books and books need them.
  • Blue: Crime and thrillers, all trustworthy holiday reads.
  • Black: literary fiction (read on for the top five).
  • First eight by L.M. Montgomery. What can I say? Memory lane beckons.
  1. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery 
  2. Anne of Avonlea, L.M. Montgomery 
  3. Anne of the Island, L.M. Montgomery 
  4. Anne of Windy Poplars, L.M. Montgomery 
  5. Anne’s House of Dreams, L.M. Montgomery 
  6. Anne of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery 
  7. Rainbow Valley, L.M. Montgomery 
  8. Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery. 
  9. Dustfall, Michelle Johnston
  10. Finders Keepers, Stephen King 
  11. Extinctions, Josephine Wilson
  12. The Sisters’ Song, Louise Allan 
  13. Survival, Rachel Watts 
  14. You Belong Here, Laurie Steed 
  15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
  16. The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
  17. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King  
  18. The Graveyard Book, Neil Gaiman (audio)
  19. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
  20. NW, Zadie Smith
  21. Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
  22. Body Double, Tess Gerritsen
  23. Vanish, Tess Gerritsen
  24. The Mephisto Club, Tess Gerritsen
  25. Afternoons with Harvey Beam, Carrie Cox 
  26. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid
  27. The Outsider, Stephen King 
  28. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  29. A Girl in Time, John Birmingham
  30. The Golden Minute, John Birmingham 
  31. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton
  32. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
  33. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller
  34. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith 
  35. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides
  36. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  37. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  38. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  39. 101 Dalmations, Dodie Smith 
  40. A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett 

Nonfiction

  • Presented in the order I read them.
  • Red: true crime
  • Blue: books about writing/literary/artistic memoirs
  • Green: personal development
  1. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl
  2. Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner
  3. Work Strife Balance, Mia Freedman  
  4. The First Stone, Helen Garner
  5. Joe Cinque’s Consolation, Helen Garner
  6. Draft No. 4, John McPhee 
  7. Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss 
  8. French Women for All Seasons, Mireille Giuilano 
  9. Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick (audio)
  10. A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis 
  11. The Passion Trap, Dean D. Celis and Cassandra Phillips 
  12. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton 
  13. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham 
  14. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  15. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  16. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard 
  17. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein

Top 5 fiction (in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked)

  1. The Shepherd’s Hut, Tim Winton (literary fiction)
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje (literary fiction)
  3. Notes on a Scandal, Zoe Heller (literary psychological thriller)
  4. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (literary crime/mystery)
  5. The Marriage Plot, Jeffrey Eugenides (literary fiction)

Top 5 (nonfiction) in the order I read — too good, and too different, to be ranked

  1. The First Stone, Helen Garner (true crime)
  2. The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton (literary memoir)
  3. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell (memoir/diary)
  4. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard (literary memoir)
  5. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein (literary memoir)

The Emma Awards

Funniest 

  1. The Diary of a Bookseller, Shaun Bythell 
  2. How to Be a Writer, John Birmingham
  3. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

Best crime:

  1. Lethal White, Robert Galbraith (crime/mystery)
  2. End of Watch, Stephen King 
  3. Insidious Intent, Val McDermid

Most inspiring: 

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Essentialism, Greg McKeown 
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl

Most beautiful writing:

  1. The Writer’s Life, Annie Dillard
  2. Warlight, Michael Ondaatje 
  3. All three titles by Helen Garner

Most difficult (all women; coincidence?) 

  1. Everybody’s Autobiography, Gertrude Stein 
  2. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy
  3. NW, Zadie Smith

Best holiday reads: 

  1. Past Tense, Lee Child 
  2. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
  3. Sleeping Beauties, Stephen King

Hope these lists help you with holiday reading ideas 🙂 If you have any questions about the titles, leave a comment! 

13 one-line book reviews: non-fiction edition

Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor E. Frankl (1959)

A psychiatrist trapped in Nazi death camps observed that people retain power to choose their own reactions, even in the worst of circumstances. A must read, a classic still in print six decades on.

 

 

Everywhere I Look, Helen Garner (2017)

An essay collection; memories, reflections, observations on all kinds of topics from one of Australia’s most celebrated authors. Utterly breathtaking writing from a master of the craft.

 

 

Work Strife Balance, Mia Freedman (2017)

Funny, insightful, generous memoir, a necessary contribution to feminist debate. I already reviewed it here.

 

 

The First Stone: some questions about sex and power, Helen Garner (1995)

Narrative nonfiction true crime – think Capote’s In Cold Blood. This discomfiting investigation of students’ sex assault allegations against a lecturer is still relevant and compulsively readable.

 

Joe Cinque’s Consolation: a true story of death, grief and the law, Helen Garner (2004)

Immediately needed more. Another unique investigation, this time of the bizarre murder of Canberran Joe Cinque. Possibly even more compulsively readable than the last.

 

Draft no. 4, John McPhee (2017)

On the art of long-form nonfiction writing by the legendary author, New Yorker writer and Princeton professor. Fascinating insights into his structuring process. Hardcore writing nerds will love it.

 

 

Tribe of Mentors, Tim Ferriss (2017)

Autodidact collects short passages of life advice from 100-plus famous people. Fun, more accessible than previous Ferriss and full of amusing, inspiring and useful nuggets. Great gift idea.

 

 

French Women for All Seasons, Mireille Giuilano (2006)

I read French Women Don’t Get Fat last year, loved it and craved more. These are only nominally diet/style books. At heart they are about our culture and our ability to celebrate and enjoy food.

 

 

Scrappy Little Nobody, Anna Kendrick (audiobook, read by author) (2016)

If you don’t love her, watch The Last 5 Years. Her memoir is hilarious, a glimpse inside Hollywood weirdness. Liked it so much I watched entire Twilight franchise just for her awkward-friend part.

 

A Grief Observed, C. S. Lewis (1961)

The notebook the great Narnia author kept after his wife’s death. A fierce cry of pain and insight into the process of mourning someone vital: so personal, and yet so universal an experience.

 

 

The Passion Trap, Dean D. Celis and Cassandra Phillips (1990)

A psychologist examines the power dynamics and traps involved in both romantic relationships and friendships, and how to alter them. Should be required reading. Fascinating, sensible and practical.

 

The Boy Behind the Curtain, Tim Winton (2016)

Autobiographical essays reveal WA’s most famous writer’s early life, career formation, relationship with land and insight into WA environmental politics. Exquisitely written, frequently funny.

 

 

How to Be a Writer: who smashes deadlines, crushes editors and lives in a solid gold hover craft, John Birmingham (2016)

Refreshingly modern, useful advice on business, and craft, of being full-time multitasking Australian writer. Tough, like a face-punching Mr Money Mustache for novelists, and laugh-out-loud funny.

 

Further reading:

Peter Craven reviews ‘The Boy Behind the Curtain‘ by Tim Winton – Australian Book Review

The biggest problem with Joe Cinque’s Consolation [movie]? Helen Garner didn’t make it – The Guardian

The 10 books you must read in 2018

My records show I read 52 books during the second half of 2017 as Stu and I travelled the USA and Canada. That’s two books a week – not bad, considering what else we packed into 26 weeks. I’ve picked the top handful, the books that changed or moved me the most, to make this reading list for 2018, should you choose to accept it. It starts in March, given I got to this post rather later than I planned!

March: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

Read in San Francisco.

Not so much a novel as popular philosophy novelised, a story examining modern love – not something natural, but something that occurs now, as it always has, within a particular social context. Alain de Botton has noticed that after the old “how’d you meet?” chestnut, no one ever seems to want to know what happened next – after the marriage. He talks about boredom, compromise, fighting, cheating. Childcare, and eventually parent care. The erosion of ideals of passion, perfection, grand romance. And then – what remains. He explores all the evidence that a lover can’t be everything, perform every function and fulfil our every need – and yet how we still expect them to be. This is a conversation society must have – indeed is always having, almost unconsciously and circuitously. De Botton gives it meaning and usefulness via a beguiling and very readable parable. Should be required reading for all adults.

April: The Ellie Chronicles, John Marsden

Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

Read in Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

The follow-up trilogy to John Marsden’s groundbreaking Tomorrow series, these books are riveting. I know I have now listed a trilogy as one book, but hey, they’re short. Together they make up one large book and they’re smarter than plenty of so-called adult novels. As well as satisfying the hunger to find out what happened to Ellie and her friends, they’ll remind you how blunt and delicate and evocative and honest John Marsden’s writing is. I’m so grateful this wonderful man gives us what we so badly need: our own country on the page. You can practically smell the eucalyptus wafting up from the page, yet above all these are stories of people: their loves and losses, grief and courage, the weird bonds that remain when everything else in a life changes beyond recognition.

May: The L.A. Quartet series, James Ellroy

Read in a poky room in LA.

I’m cheating again. This is actually four books. Four big, gloriously fat, difficult books. I had already read The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. While away I completed The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. James Ellroy is known for his razor-sharp prose, hard and dense and staggering. It’s unlike any other author’s writing, ever, and you can’t really say you know crime literature or even American literature without knowing Ellroy. Be careful, though – this is the most violent stuff I’ve ever read (or seen onscreen, for that matter). It’s not for the fainthearted. It requires time and commitment and focus. It’s worth every minute. And I recognise that realistically you’re only going to finish the first one in May. That’s OK. Just make a start.

 

 

June: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

Echo Park, LA - a good place for reading

Read in Echo Park, L.A.

For fans of clever, classic sci-fi. So clever I confess to skim-reading some parts I just couldn’t understand (Stephenson is actually a scientist). But above all it’s a rip-roaring story. Nell is a smart but disadvantaged child in a supremely uncaring dystopia. She gets one chance to break free from her origins when she comes into possession of a stolen “book”, the world’s most precious technological creation: a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. What she learns inside will change history as much as it changes her. This book is top-shelf. There’s a reason Neal Stephenson is as rare as hen’s teeth in secondhand bookstores. He is the real deal.

July: Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

New Orleans

Read in New Orleans.

Modern literature from one of the world’s best. A family saga, an examination of modern Judaism, a visionary contemplation of the fragile peace between fraught nations, a deeply intimate look inside a crumbling marriage. A funny, sad, page-turning read, the kind you can’t put down even when your eyes get sore and you’re afraid to find out what happens. Do it for book club. Give it to anyone. Sink your teeth in. A solid bet.

August: All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Our first AirBnB, in Bangor, Maine

Read here in Bangor, Maine.

I seemed to read a lot of books about marriage, perhaps unsurprisingly given the opportunity to navel-gaze for six months in tiny rooms with the love of my life. The other emerging theme turned out, to my surprise, to be war and Judaism. Synchronicity perhaps, as we looked at so many museums of world history, with the Holocaust staining it all like red paint thrown across a canvas. In this vein I also read the older but still incredible The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and the Victor E Frankl classic Man’s Search for Meaning. This book, All the Light we Cannot See, won the 2014 Pulitzer after taking the author ten years. I understood why it took so long. The quality and quantity of detail, its careful arrangement, the love and work that went into these parallel stories of a young blind French girl and a young German boy soldier in WWII glimmers from every page. An absorbing, original, readable, beautiful book to bring you to your knees.

September: The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

Read throughout the east coast and finished somewhere around here, North Carolina.

Still flying off the shelves after 26 years in print. It’s a workbook above all else, an inspiring, amusing and practical book on loosening the pent-up creative artist inside every human – that artist most of us lock up sometime after childhood, and before adulthood. This is perhaps one of the most illuminating books I have ever read. It’s changed the way I see the world, the way I interpret every event. It ensured I not only left NYC having completed my manuscript edit, but that I spent the final few months of our trip churning out the manuscript of a second novel. And it ensured I spent all the intervening time jotting notes for the third. If you’ve ever buried a secret love of drawing, writing, painting, performing, or silently felt longing to write a screenplay or movie or play or just MAKE something, and that little ache just always stays in your heart… read this.

October: Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel

Read by the window in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

You’ve had your Alain de Botton primer and you’re ready for Lesson 2. For anyone interested in marriage, fidelity, sex and passion, healthy relationships and just the art and science of human communication, both are required reading. Esther Perel is a rock-star in the field. She has been interviewed on the Tim Ferriss Show and recommended by Dan Savage of the Savage Lovecast. A holistic, fascinating and vitally refreshing look at the poetry, politics and power of sex and the role it plays in modern relationships, it really changed my perspective. Our subsequent discussions on the topics it introduced deepened our understanding of each other and of society, and without doubt strengthened the foundations of our marriage.

 

 

November: On Writing, Stephen King 

Read on NYC subways. Lots of them.

I owe this writer so much for his inspiration and practical advice, as well as the hours of sheer pleasure of devouring everything he’s ever written. He has taught me not only that writing can be fun but that it should be fun. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can make money. No, you don’t have to be a tortured soul or a starving artist or an alcoholic or suicidal or a drug addict to make good art. This, like all his books, is just a bloody good read. Part memoir, part deconstruction of process and part solid advice, it’s a must-read for all fans. In fact Gerald Winters, owner of the King bookstore in Bangor, Maine, told me the vast majority of King fans, writers or not, name this their favourite of all his works.

December: Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach

 

Read near Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, upstate NY

Don’t hold the title against her. The publisher probably made her do it. Tara Brach, also featured on the Tim Ferriss Show, is an American meditation teacher. Don’t hold that against her either. Hell, just swallow all your judgy superior thoughts and excuses about why you don’t meditate for a minute, all right? This book is wise and powerful and compassionate. It’s a thoughtful examination of the role suffering plays in human lives. It offers an – dare I say it? –  enlightened understanding of the experience of being a thinking, feeling, loving, living, feeling, hurting person. It addresses that gap you feel deep inside yourself, the one that usually makes you go and get another glass of wine or handful of crisps rather than thinking about what’s bothering you. Reading this book made me do that thinking and it reverberates through my consciousness daily.

 

OK, now it’s December, you don’t have time for any more reading. Go do your Christmas shopping.

Performance-enhancing book: Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans

the-tim-ferriss-show-podcast

Tim Ferriss and trusty steed Laura keep me inspired and happy through each and every commute. 

Just as with fiction I tend to fall down the rabbit hole, I get excited when I find a good resource covering one of my more “real” areas of obsession.

I find a new font of inspiration and information and sort of suck them dry like a vampire, until I have consumed everything they have to say and grown stronger. Hmm, perhaps more of a parasite.
Unflattering self-depictions aside, recent examples include the financial freedom blog of Mr Money Mustache (nearly 500 posts, worked through gluttonously and chronologically) and the 100-odd hours of The Minimalists’ podcasts so far released.
Eventually, I find, I absorb the message. I’m converted. I get it. I know the Minimalists’ stories and catchphrases so well I listen to them more like a soothing old bedtime story now than a source of excitement. I’ve done the projectsjoined the cult.
But a slightly different case is the Tim Ferriss Show,  the podcast in which optimisation junkie Ferriss conducts long-form interviews with the world’s top performers across myriad fields, deconstructing their habits and back-stories in an effort to find out what habits lead to success.
Ferriss is also author of business classic The Four-Hour Workweek, health hacker bible The Four-Hour Body and learning-method deconstruction The Four-Hour Chef. He is so adored it’s sometimes hard to tell who’s more star-struck, him or his famous guests.
(Imagine my delight, incidentally, when finally my nerd prayers were answered this week and Ferriss bowed to fan pressure to interview Mr Money Mustache in the latest episode).
This show never gets old and never runs out. You never learn it all. It’s the personal development equivalent of a gold mine that runs to the other side of the earth. You could never hope to read all the books recommended, follow up all the little side routes and innovations you hear about. I’ve read two of the books, bits of the others and listened to more than 200 hours of interviews and yet feel I’ve barely scratched the surface.
I have the books on Kindle, but am planning to buck my own minimalist trends and buy them in hard copy to keep for more easy and frequent referencing. And throughout the interviews, there are certainly common themes, but there is far more variation than there is repetition, and the recurrences are, in themselves, fascinating.

This was the reasoning behind the book, an attempt by Ferriss to capture and distill the best of all his interviews thus far, and draw the connections between them. I approached it with greedy anticipation, having bought it for myself as a Christmas present (though I had to get it on Kindle, the city bookstores having sold out).

It’s a diamond-hard read without an ounce of fat, and includes plenty of new material and insight into Ferriss’ personal struggles. But a word of warning: don’t bother if you’re not seriously into personal challenges and life-hacking. Otherwise it will quickly overwhelm. Even a medium-level devotee such as I found many of the concepts covered (it is divided into sections Healthy, Wealthy and Wise) too advanced for me, at least in terms of finance, exercise, diet and biomedical science. But even if you skim over parts, that, he says, is the way he intends the book to be read. More like a buffet than a three-course meal (my words, not his).
And it’s endlessly stimulating. I love knowing there is always more out there to learn, about people, the capacity of an individual mind and body to reach extreme performance. It’s humorous and fast-paced, and at 700-odd pages, you can skim the parts you’re not up for yet without feeling like you’re not getting bang for your buck.
Cool features include a comprehensive reading list from each interviewee, and a cartooned spirit animal for each based on how they imagine themselves. My advice is get it in hard copy, devour it for fun, then go back and drill down.
Happy nerding!

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Minimalism, Margaret Atwood and crazy mothers

 

20160703084146_resized

‘Books must pass from person to person in order to stay alive’ – Margaret Atwood (Photo: Dominic Ronzo)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robert Pirsig’s Zen And the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

is not for the faint-hearted but complex, ambitious, moving and outstandingly original. Still groundbreaking decades after its publication, yes it actually has motorcycle maintenance in it and no that does not make it boring. It’s an impressive narrative device that both illuminates and speeds along this mind-opening mystery/travel memoir/work of modern philosophy.

Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing

is actually a rounded-out version of a series of lectures Atwood gave on this subject, this is a must for anyone interested in Atwood, Canadian writing, or writing in general. Gives a rare and witty insight into the early life of one of the world’s most beloved writers, while musing deeply on the nature of books and the poor saps who write them. Packed to the gills with quotes – worth it alone just as a collection of quotes on writing. A fast, beautiful, inspiring and entertaining read. I got mine at Boffins. Was previously titled Negotiations with the Dead.

Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit

I know, I am the last person in the universe to read everything and I should really just give up on back catalogues and read new stuff, especially since Winterson recently released a new work, a ‘cover’ of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale. But I’m working my way slowly through the Winterson canon, one of the only bulk collections to survive the Curing of a Bibliomaniac. The most amazing thing was that I didn’t know until I’d heard this podcast interview with Winterson that the reason her books are crazy and awesome and unreal and Biblical in epic proportions, peopled with fantastically grotesque matriarchs, was because that was actually what her childhood was. And right down to the exorcisms, this book tells the story of her childhood and unbelievably crazy mother. If you’re a fan it’s required reading (and the podcast required listening). If you’re not, get out of my face.

Minimalism?

As you know, I’m always up for a new challenge and these books have just been given to my excellent friend Jess, who has just returned home bookless and footloose after time abroad, and who I thought of as I read every one of these recently. They’re right up her alley but the gifting was also part of the 30-Day Minimalism Challenge I’ve just embarked on with my brother and sister-in-law, to the general bemusement of everyone else, especially the poor Ministry, who guards like a dragon the few possessions he’s got left after I blitzed through his life leaving destruction and empty rooms in my wake.

Because I don’t know when to stop, I’m also doing Dry July with my awesomely supportive family. Donate to me (and thereby to support Solaris cancer support service in WA) here. Thank you! It’s a damned good cause.

 

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 22: The Meaning of Friendship (Mark Vernon, 2010)

Books left: 4. Weeks left: 7 (breathe in, breathe out. Undo metaphysical belt of brain.)

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, and at least with a nectarine you know what you're getting.

Almost as pretty as a white-fleshed nectarine, but at least with a nectarine you know what you’re getting.

Wow, found a book with an author’s name starting with V, and that if nothing else is testament to the necessity of this project.

I see its pretty jacket and sail in, blithely unaware of the small note I later discover in the blurb that the book is a revised version of one previously titled The Philosophy of Friendship.

Consider your warning unheeded, sirs!

 

 

Vernon’s book is an examination of the rules and functions of friendship in contemporary society, with chapters on subjects such as friendships at work, the possibility of being ‘just friends’ and not lovers, friending online, friendship as it relates to politics, and friendship as a spiritual experience. He peppers his text with examples from both real life and pop culture, and simultaneously links it to the works of philosophers including Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, Foucault, Kant and Aquinas.

He paints a portrait of the ancient world that shows clearly how civilisation once valued friendship, though official structures, language patterns and customs, in ways it now does not; and calls for us to reconsider, as he has retitled his book, the meaning of friendship.

Why is it that modern society has no public means of recognising the bonds formed between friends, a fact that is in stark contrast to the family, which is celebrated as the very basis of community? Surely friendship plays a vital part in that too … it is not just that friendship is not recognised in society, whereas family is, but that the particularity of friendship can often be regarded as a threat to the unconditional love that is supposed to reign within the family too. Why else do individuals somehow feel they must renegotiate a long-term friendship when their friend gets married? Or, to put it another way: is there not a steely strand in the ethic of modern marriage which repels anything that compromises the unconditional commitment of husband and wife – ‘forsaking all others,’ as the service says? Close friendship can count as infidelity quite as much as a fling or affair.

This is a deeply unsatisfactory state of affairs. For all Kant may wish it, and ethical discourse may ignore it, friendship will not cease. Aristotle’s intuition is right: it has to do with self-love, and it is certainly partial, but it is also undoubtedly necessary for a happy life. Moreover, if friendship is rising back up the agenda of people’s personal commitments, as marriage reforms and other institutions of belonging become less reliable, then an ethical discourse that takes friendship seriously is needed, not least to provide some structure for people who want to make the most of it. Friendship will always be full of ambiguities. We’ve established that by now. But that does not mean it is not possible to think through them and welcome friendship as a key, if complicated, facet of life – which, after all, is only complicated itself.

As Vernon outlines, friendship has been a topic largely ignored by most philosophers. Many of the philosophers he references in depth here are a product of those ancient times in which friendship was valued more highly. This means his book is not only justified as an unprecedented study but that he has also been able to have a jolly good stab at assembling the gist of it all in one book of modest length. For a philosophy fan it will no doubt be a valued addition to the library as its subject matter, as well as the approach through a modern lens, is unique.

Note I say philosophy fans and not people like me, with gnat-like attention spans.

I consider myself a charming blend of literary snob and member of the unwashed masses. I like books with corpses or explosions or humour or if they are Serious Literary Fiction I like them to have stunningly beautiful prose. I am reluctant with documentaries, nonfiction or even things that smell of them, such as satire, to the point I even hesitated on the very funny New Zealand vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows because I thought it might be too realistic for Sunday entertainment. But I do enjoy the nonfiction I end up consuming from time to time – recent examples being tiny house movement documentary Tiny and Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought. Point is, surely I can’t be alone in finding both ancient history and philosophy a hard slog, and now I’m no longer a pretentious 20-year-old who carries around a Nietzsche tome she is unable to finish, I can admit it.

By the middle of Vernon’s book my interest has flatlined and I fight my way to the final chapters rather grimly, cursing not Vernon or his subject matter but the book’s clever marketing that has led me to buy it in the first place (PRETTY COLOURS). It’s not difficult as such, thanks to Vernon’s engaging style, but I must say I don’t plan to pass it on to anyone I know unless they have a burning interest in the subject.

Having said that, the last do raise some intensely interesting topics, exploring far-reaching and fascinating histories of gender and same-sex relationship issues, and this has cheered me up a little by the time I embark heroically upon the conclusion. Here, Vernon has somehow travelled through time and space and seen my boredom and secret wishes for a fluffy self-help book, because his final chapter, Friendship Beyond Self-Help, draws to the heart of why he has written a book of philosophy.

Perhaps the key to a fulfilled life is not to be self-centred but other-centred, to lose yourself in order to find it. That’s a common religious sentiment, and it’s one attested to by the experience of friendship too. Aristotle has a particularly powerful account of it, when he talks of the friend being another self, the person in whom you not only see yourself reflected but in who you discover yourself. There is no being human on a desert island, any more than there are such things as solitary ants. The good life is the attempt to live for others in life. As Iris Murdoch has it, love is ‘the painful realisation that something other than myself exists.’
This perhaps partly explains why there is no end to self-help books. They are condemned to struggle with this conundrum – they solution they offer – attend to yourself – is actually part of the problem.

Consider me chastised!

Keep or Kill? I’m not going to re-read it, so unless someone of a more academic bent than me wants it, it’s going on the No Pile.