I got enough money to order fourteen books, plus a friend gave me one unexpectedly. Now I get the extended pleasure of looking forward to the mail each day for the next few weeks. I hope your Christmas was as merry as mine.
so many books, so little time
Books will always exist. Jefferson’s category of the educated minority, on whose existence the prospects of civilized mankind depend, is no longer enough. To educated we need to add interested. The very impulse of human attention depends on human interest, a quality often involved with humility, with our capacity of seeing beyond ourselves. This awareness sometimes issues from reading.
Interest may just as well be involved with greed, as Nietzsche noted:
“Oh, my greed! There is no selflessness in my soul but only an all-coveting self that would like to appropriate many individuals as so many additional pairs and eyes and hands – a self that would like to bring back the whole past, too, and that will not lose anything that it could possibly possess. Oh, my greed is a flame! Oh, that I might be reborn in a hundred beings!” – Whoever does not know this sigh from firsthand experience does not know the passion of the search for knowledge.
The Lady of the House and I were traveling on business over the weekend, and during some free time in between engagements, we went foraging for victuals and found ourselves strolling through a gigantic mall which contained a two-story Barnes & Noble. I was doing fine until I got to the philosophy section, where I found a few books which have been on my Amazon wish list for a while, plus a few previously-unknown others which caught my interest.
Nothing else has this kind of pull over me. I know full well that I can have all these books for half the price if I just wait and buy wisely online, and I know equally well that I already have, uh — ::checks Goodreads, blushes, clears throat:: — 38 books waiting to be read, but lord-o-lord, it was a mighty struggle against the temptation to damn frugality and steam full speed ahead to the register with probably $200 worth of titles under my arm, just for the thrill of having them all right there in a bag. It honestly caused me psychic pain to have to walk away empty-handed. This is the only setting in which I have to beware the onset of temporary consumer madness like that. Plug my ears or tie me to the mast, Lady, the sirens are singing to me again!
Me, every day. pic.twitter.com/pPPdYooUbR
— Nicholas Kaufmann (@TheKaufmann) October 19, 2017
At the end of August, lacking anything new to read, I started re-reading Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. A few days later, a routine trip to the library ended with me bringing home several new releases. Then, the fall library sale season began. I finally finished Twain over the weekend, but I notice that somehow I have 27 books in the currently-reading pile. An imminent birthday will surely lead to the accrual of another ten or so. Will I be able to finish them all by Christmas, in time to buy another stack? Would it make a difference? Of course not. As Zarathustra sighed, “I recognize my lot. Thus my destiny wants it. Well, I am ready.” It’s a good life.
Well, I fell short of my stated goal from this summer by one and a half books. Still, I applaud my effort. Now, my Sisyphean task resumes with another stack. And like Camus (the subject of “A Life Worth Living”, in the middle row) said, one must imagine Sisyphus happy. Yes, yes, I am.
So, I refinanced the house last month, cutting the interest rate by almost half and reducing the payment by a couple hundred, with a couple months’ vacation from making mortgage payments as a much-welcome bonus. I worked a lot of extra shifts in the meantime to make hay while the sun was shining. And, like I said in the last post, I got dropped by that company only to land softly on my feet in a better-paying, better-structured job with the new company.
It’s been a very good summer. I’d go so far as to say it’s celebration time, in fact. And how do I celebrate? That’s right, by buying a bunch of books I’ve had on my wish list for up to two years now.
Two more additions to the stack. This is just a fun-sized edition of ATBIDR…, you might say.
That tour guide last year tried to tell me that William Penn was the first to create genuine freedom of worship in the colonies. The jacket copy of Barry’s book says, however:
For four hundred years, Americans have wrestled with and fought over two concepts that define the nature of the nation: the proper relation between church and state and between a free individual and the state. These debates began with the extraordinary thought and struggles of Roger Williams, who had an unparalleled understanding of the conflict between a government that justified itself by “reason of state”-i.e. national security-and its perceived “will of God” and the “ancient rights and liberties” of individuals.
This is a story of power, set against Puritan America and the English Civil War. Williams’s interactions with King James, Francis Bacon, Oliver Cromwell, and his mentor Edward Coke set his course, but his fundamental ideas came to fruition in America, as Williams, though a Puritan, collided with John Winthrop’s vision of his “City upon a Hill.”
Acclaimed historian John M. Barry explores the development of these fundamental ideas through the story of the man who was the first to link religious freedom to individual liberty, and who created in America the first government and society on earth informed by those beliefs. The story is essential to the continuing debate over how we define the role of religion and political power in modern American life.
I haven’t really read much about Williams since my school days, so that should be interesting. As for John Gray, whose book I’m already half-finished with and enjoying as usual, I thought this interview with Nick Talbot was one of the better ones I’ve seen of his, with Talbot’s questions actually adding to the quality:
I was surprised to see you so often characterised as a conservative thinker – you certainly don’t hold any positions that characterise, say, the “paleo-conservative” American right. (You have identified strains of utopianism in free market neo-liberalism and liberal interventionism and your embrace of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory is anathema to most on the right.) Is your conservatism more in the mould of David Hume, perhaps? A sceptical caution over the human tendency to see patterns where there are none.
JG: I’m not sure it makes much sense to talk of conservatism these days. Certainly I share the view, often held by conservatives in the past, that there is such a thing as human nature, that it’s relatively constant and in some ways inherently flawed. (Thinking this way is one reason why I’m not a post-modernist.) It was this type of conservatism that the painter Francis Bacon had in mind when he said he always voted for the right because it made the best of a bad job. The poet T.E. Hulme said something very similar. But that kind of conservatism scarcely exists any more: Today conservative thinking oscillates between neo-con progressivism – a species of inverted Marxism – and paleo-conservative reaction, which amounts to not much more than a collection of ugly prejudices (racism, homophobia, misogyny). Both these versions of “conservatism” seem to me hostile to the conservation of civilised life. The genuine scepticism of David Hume is much preferable to anything that passes as conservative today.
At the same time I doubt if Hume’s rationalistic Enlightenment variety of scepticism is enough – for one thing, he had the good fortune to live before the age of militant political faiths and modern fundamentalism. Montaigne is a better guide, possibly the best, to living in a time of modern wars of faith.
…You argue that popular music’s trite language of self-realisation owes much to the Romantic movement’s emphasis on originality, but I see it as a logical result of the culture of individualism perpetuated by the New Right; instead of thinking how they can contribute to their community, young people have been encouraged to indulge egoistic fantasies. Is there any hope for encouraging a communitarian ethos in young people?
JG: I wonder if communitarianism means anything any more – think of Cameron’s big society. The prevailing individualism runs much deeper than anything owed to the New Right. Maybe we’re in a time akin to those in which the Buddha and Epicurus lived – in which it’s up to each individual, along with those they care about, to live as well as they can. To be sure, political and other types of collective action may be necessary to defend civilised values. But I don’t think any collective project can or should be viewed as providing meaning in life.
Hume, Montaigne, Buddha and Epicurus. Now there’s a dinner party to fantasize about hosting.
Who does that? Not me! After today’s Champions League final, I’ve got almost three months of hell-spawned weather to look forward to with hardly any fútbol to watch, so you better believe I’m going to get some book-reading done. Here’s the most recent additions to the stack since last time, which no, of course I haven’t finished, just like I hadn’t finished all the ones from the picture before that, because shut up, that’s why, I don’t have a problem, I am so going to get them all read sooner or later; here, quit harassing me and just look at this:
None of us, of course, will ever read all the books we’d like, but we can still make a stab at it. Why deny yourself all that pleasure? So look around tonight or this weekend, see what catches your fancy on the bookshelf, at the library, or in the bookstore. Maybe try something a little unusual, a little different. And then don’t stop. Do it again, with a new book or an old author the following week. Go on—be bold, be insatiable, be restlessly, unashamedly promiscuous.
Okay, the silver-tongued devil talked me into it. Here it is, as currently constituted, the alpha and omega, the first and last, the beginning and end of my “recently-read, currently-reading, still-yet-to-read” stack. The stars must have aligned just so for so many books from my wish list to become available all at once from my local library.