What is the Point of a Bookish Life?

From Joseph Epstein’s new essay, The Bookish Life: How to Read and Why:

What is the true point of a bookish life? Note I write “point,” not “goal.” The bookish life can have no goal: It is all means and no end. The point, I should say, is not to become immensely knowledgeable or clever, and certainly not to become learned. Montaigne, who more than five centuries ago established the modern essay, grasped the point when he wrote, “I may be a man of fairly wide reading, but I retain nothing.” Retention of everything one reads, along with being mentally impossible, would only crowd and ultimately cramp one’s mind. “I would very much love to grasp things with a complete understanding,” Montaigne wrote, “but I cannot bring myself to pay the high cost of doing so. . . . From books all I seek is to give myself pleasure by an honorable pastime; or if I do study, I seek only that branch of learning which deals with knowing myself and which teaches me how to live and die well.” What Montaigne sought in his reading, as does anyone who has thought at all about it, is “to become more wise, not more learned or more eloquent.” As I put it elsewhere some years ago, I read for the pleasures of style and in the hope of “laughter, exaltation, insight, enhanced consciousness,” and, like Montaigne, on lucky days perhaps to pick up a touch of wisdom along the way.

Mark Twain Couldn’t Find it With A Dog

As a collector of Mark Twain books and paraphernalia, I recently came across a load of pictures, some of which I’d never seen before. Here is one of them and the perfect quote to go along with it!

MT with a dog copy

It takes me a long time to lose my temper, but once lost I could not find it with a dog. — Mark Twain

A Good Deal of Confusion

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Mark Twain at the time of the Civil War

I knew Mark Twain had served briefly in the confederate army when the Civil War broke out in 1861. He served 2 weeks, had enough of “retreating,” so he abandoned the confederate army and headed West (Nevada) with his brother to sit out the war. I had read about Twain’s Civil War service only in secondary material, but recently I finally got around to reading Twain’s own essay on his Civil War experience in a piece he called The Private History of a Campaign that Failed.

I should note, Twain grew up in Missouri, a slave state and largely southern in culture, and was piloting steamboats on the Mississippi River when the war broke out.

After reading Twain’s story, I couldn’t help but post the second paragraph, a model specimen of Twain’s humor and charm as a writer:

Out west there was a good deal of confusion in men’s minds during the first months of the great trouble, a good deal of unsettledness, of leaning first this way then that, and then the other way. It was hard for us to get our bearings. I call to mind an example of this. I was piloting on the Mississippi when the news came that South Carolina had gone out of the Union on the 20th of December, 1860. My pilot mate was a New Yorker. He was strong for the Union; so was I. But he would not listen to me with any patience, my loyalty was smirched, to his eye, because my father had owned slaves. I said in palliation of this dark fact that I had heard my father say, some years before he died, that slavery was a great wrong and he would free the solitary Negro he then owned if he could think it right to give away the property of the family when he was so straitened in means. My mate retorted that a mere impulse was nothing, anyone could pretend to a good impulse, and went on decrying my Unionism and libeling my ancestry. A month later the secession atmosphere had considerably thickened on the Lower Mississippi and I became a rebel; so did he. We were together in New Orleans the 26th of January, when Louisiana went out of the Union. He did his fair share of the rebel shouting but was opposed to letting me do mine. He said I came of bad stock, of a father who had been willing to set slaves free. In the following summer he was piloting a Union gunboat and shouting for the Union again and I was in the Confederate army. I held his note for some borrowed money. He was one of the most upright men I ever knew but he repudiated that note without hesitation because I was a rebel and the son of a man who owned slaves.

In Front of One’s Nose

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George Orwell

In one of Orwell’s essays he writes, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” I read this essay years ago and this quote still hits me during times I’m struggling to pay attention to the course of a discussion or observe some interaction or event. By the way, we say “pay attention” for a reason, because there is effort involved, it “costs” us something to be present and focused in the now. My lovely wife reminds me that I tend to run deficits in my attention budget. So I have work to do myself.

Anyway, Orwell recognized that most people may look, but they struggle to see what lies right in front of them. I know I certainly do. Of course we all know a good portion of our fellow travelers who simply don’t want to see—because they might not like what they see! It might weaken their web of belief to see things differently, which would disturb their world, overturn their settled opinions. And so we beat on, boats against the current, having those utterly pointless arguments with some friends and relatives for whom critical reflection and a change of mind is simply not an option. Better off to talk about the weather instead.

It has taken me many years to realize that not everyone, heck most people actually, aren’t interested in a search for truth, beauty, or goodness. Heck, some aren’t even mildly interested in a sensible position—especially in politics and football—for that matter. I got it. Many of us just want to feel comfortable and that type of higher level, deeper, thinking, can be “a bit much” as my wife says. But I’ll note here that the “in front of your nose” type thinking/awareness is more about attentiveness to subtleties and nuances in the moment. Experience is multilayered, and its influence on our thinking and actions is often unconscious. Orwell might remind us that’s why propaganda, well orchestrated, can be so effective. This is why history is crowded with groups of people that, at times, have believed monstrous lies. If you’ve been alive long enough you’ve probably come to the same conclusion I have that people aren’t primarily rational, they’re emotional. And that’s what moves them. The trick, of course, is to get people, early on during their educations, emotionally invested in the importance, goodness, and benefit of seeking truth…faith, hope, & love. As William James put it, truth can be realized by its “cash-value in experiential terms.” Simply put: The truth pays.

So try to remember Orwell’s words as you go about your day and keep reminding yourself to pay attention to what’s happening right in front of you. You might be surprised at what you see and learn.

John Steinbeck: This is What I Am About

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And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected. And this I must fight against: any religion, or government which limits or destroys the individual. This is what I am and what I am about. — John Steinbeck