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. 

 

Advertisements

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 17: The Wife Drought – Why Women Need Lives and Men Need Wives (Annabel Crabb, 2014)

Books left: 9. Weeks left: 14 (it’s when the first number gets higher than the second that we’ll really need to start worrying. Until then, so far so good). 

the wife droughtNow, I know we’re up to Q, but I didn’t have any Q authors so thought I’d substitute this as it was a Christmas present from the Matriarch and I could actually review a contemporary, relevant title.

Just to shock you all.

I have been a hopeless Annabel Crabb fan-girl ever since I discovered her work while knee-deep in my journalism postgrad. The seasoned political columnist and host of ABC show Kitchen Cabinet is the only writer I know who can so successfully pair politics and humour, so when I heard The Wife Drought was coming out, I swallowed my characteristic queasiness about non-fiction and wrote it down on my wishlist.

I think Leigh Sales puts it rather well in this interview she did with Crabb:

LS Between your television show, newspaper columns, radio appearances, and raising your three children, you’ve now written a book, The Wife Drought. When are you going to get off your lazy bum and actually do something with your life?

My excitement to hear about Crabb’s nutso productivity was nothing to the excitement that built after I started the book. Finally someone was putting numbers and facts to my own beliefs and anxieties on the subject of women and work, and by some miracle, doing so amusingly. Central to the book is an investigation of the social construct of a ‘wife’ as not necessarily a man or a woman, but any partner who draws back on work responsibilities in order to run the couple’s household and/or family and enable the other partner to work. Crabb argues that any professional man or woman in possession of a ‘wife’ has a powerful economic and social asset backing their career. It just so happens that it’s usually the men who get wives, and women don’t get this luxury.

Crabb manages to both talk about the reasons for this without simplifying them into the two baskets she says explanations usually fall into – ‘women are hopeless’ and ‘men are awful’ –  and, moreover, says the end result is that it’s not just women who are missing out.

The book faced some criticism after its release for not adding much in the way of solutions to the debate surrounding this subject, criticism any book on this subject would probably face. But I would argue it rounds out the discussion in an unprecedented way by not only focusing on what women are losing out on, but on what men are losing out on too. Crabb illuminates a subject rarely spoken of – the barriers, both official and unspoken, that prevent men from adjusting their lives to take part more fully in family and home life. It turns out that men who would like to adjust their working lives after they have children are less likely to ask – and if they do, they’re less likely to be told it’s OK.

Crabb sets her solid base of compelling social research in the context of the unique perspective her life as a political journalist has afforded her – the revelations about some of the country’s most high-powered men and women and how they approach work-life balance, or lack thereof, are fascinating. Topping off this powerful mix are wry and frequently hilarious observations from Crabb, a mother of three in a dual-income household. Together, this combination of historical context, modern insight and personal experience makes the book a slam-dunk portrait of what the ‘wife drought’ is – and why we need to talk about it.

By writing this Crabb has cemented her place in my heart as the Terry Pratchett of Australian politics and society. I have an almost pathological fear of non-fiction (despite hoarding an entire bookcase full of the stuff) but I speed through this in days and, believe it or not, giggle out loud for much of it.

I feel I have hardly done justice to the level of insight in this book and cannot overestimate its importance. Women should read it, but men should read it too – and what’s more, they’ll like it.

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.

The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 11: The Amphora Project (William Kotzwinkle, 2005)

Books remaining: 15. Weeks left to read them: 28 (I laugh in the face of danger). 

As a pubescent, I read Kotzwinkle’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, a novelisation of the legendary 1982 Steven Spielberg film and thought the book just about better than the movie. Don’t throw rocks at me. The book was excellent.

Hence when I came across an original Kotzwinkle several years ago I snapped it up and, true to form, didn’t read it. Until now.

The Amphora Project

The Amphora Project

This is the story of Amphora, the immortality machine, and the humans who foolishly try to use it to achieve eternal life, at a time in which the Earth has long stopped being habitable, and people have long stopped accepting the idea of going quietly into that good night. When it becomes clear that Amphora is unstable and threatening the very existence of the race trying to use it, a band of fugitives makes one final attempt to destroy the device.

Lovers of a good robot, look no further – little Upquark, who converts himself into a suitcase in times of stress, is drawn haplessly into the battle and is hands-down what most endeared this story to me.

Upquark stared about in wonder. There was sand in his rollers, but excitement in his emotional card. Highly unusual circumstances were unfolding, for which he had no reference. He’d tossed and turned for hours in Ren’s ship, analysing for hours the terrible sequence of events he and his friends had undergone, and then, quite on its own, a train of nondeductive inference had begun, culminating in a picture of himself as a dangerous outlaw with a high metallic luster. Now he tried out a menacing gesture with his grippers, but no one seemed to notice. Perhaps he required Pugnacity Firmware.

Special mention, too, goes to the ‘junkernauts’, hazardous monoliths formed of obsolete, lunatic and half-broken robots determined to go on functioning in whatever capacity possible, with the result that they join to form these enormous oddities that sail about the galaxy, spectacularly destroying everything in their paths.

With its invention, whimsy and vivid stable of lovable, repulsive, weird and sexy characters, this would in fact itself have made a great movie. As a book it was a little hard to get, and stay, immersed in.

Though I put this down to lack of time to ‘get a run at it’, I find myself questioning this conventional wisdom. Surely the lack of ability to ‘get into’ books is not all because we all now have woefully short attention spans and even less free time.

When I feel truly captivated by a book I make the time, constantly rushing off for five minutes more to poke my nose into it, deciding to let this or that task slide so I might polish it off. Perhaps if we are so time-poor and have so much competing for our attention we should only keep reading any book if we feel that pull, and never let anything less suffice. (Though had this been my philosophy always there would doubtless be no chance I ever would have finished, for example, Mrs Dalloway  – a bit painful, sure, but undoubtedly worth it). But as a general rule…

I vaguely knew Kotzwinkle’s work, sure, so picking up the book was justified. But as you keep reading a book that is not compelling you, what else is going unread? Right now because of this project, I am not reading Peter Carey’s Amnesia. I’m not reading Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought or Don Watson’s The Bush or letting the Matriarch pass on her latest book club book, Karen Joy Fowler’s We are All Completely Beside Ourselves or sharing the Ministry’s new obsession with Vince Flynn’s Mitch Rapp thrillers.

Did I enjoy The Amphora Project? Yes. Would I recommend it to a sci-fi lover? Yes. Was it worth feeling cut off from the new book world for? Not really. Welcome to my learning curve.

Slowly I am realising I don’t actually want to read every single one of the hundreds of unread books I own, though I feel like saying it quietly in case they hear me. It is not that they have no value. It is just that I am realising the value they have to me, and to who I am, lessened over the years I carted them around.

Now what I value is freshness and space, clarity and time. A load of books is not proof of personality or taste and nor should it be. If an object is in my home, I should get joy from touching it and seeing it, not a vague sense of guilt and overwhelm.

There are only so many rainy days I will have in my life.

This is why from now in on How to Cure a Bibliomaniac that for each letter I do as the second half of the alphabet approaches – if I pick one book above the rest, with the internet as my witness, I will get rid of the others if I’m not serious about reading them.

And I’m not going to keep this book either.

This post was inspired by The Minimalists.