Review: Rousseau’s Confessions

Review: Rousseau’s Confessions

ConfessionsConfessions by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are times when I am so unlike myself that I could be taken for someone else of an entirely opposite character.

This book begins with a falsehood and only escalates from there. Rousseau, prone to hyperbole, boldly asserts that his autobiography is without precedent. Nevermind St. Augustine’s famous autobiography, which shares the same name; and ignore the works of St. Teresa, Benvenuto Cellini, and Montaigne. I suppose this sort of boastful exaggeration shouldn’t count for much; after all, Milton began Paradise Lost by saying he was attempting “Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.” Nevertheless, the second part of Rousseau’s assertion, that his enterprise would “find no imitator,” is even more indisputably false than the first one. This book has found nothing if not imitators.

Rousseau’s Confessions is really two distinct works, the first covering his childhood to his early adulthood, the second up to age fifty-three. For my part, the first is far better, and far more original. Like any modern self-psychoanalyzer, Rousseau traces his personality to formative events in his childhood—quite unusual at the time, I believe. Even more surprising is how frankly sexual is Rousseau’s story. He begins by describing the erotic pleasure he derived from being spanked by his nanny, relates a few homosexual encounters (undesired on his part), and frequently mentions masturbation. Much of the first book is simply prolonged descriptions of all the women he’s had anything to do with.

The second part is less striking, sometimes dull, but still full of interesting episodes. Rousseau has much to say about his career as a composer, something of which I had no idea before reading this book. He begins his career as a musician as a bungler and a phony, but eventually succeeds in closing the gap between his pretensions and abilities. It isn’t long before Rousseau finds himself stitching together some musical and lyrical fragments from Jean-Philippe Rameau and Voltaire into Les fêtes de Ramire, a one-act opera; and he soon becomes Rameau’s enemy, because (Rousseau is convinced) Rameau is jealous of Rousseau’s musical powers.

Rousseau also relates the famous tale of his children. After taking a seamstress, Thérèse, as his mistress, and having several children by her, he persuades her (and himself) to give them up to the foundling hospital. This is probably the most infamous episode of Rousseau’s life, and has provided plentiful fuel for those wish to discredit his ideas on education and child-rearing. As Rousseau grows old and becomes a man of letters, he accumulates ever more enemies, including Diderot and Grimm, who (Rousseau asserts) plotted relentlessly against him, partially because Rousseau scorned city life and modern luxuries.

I can’t help comparing this book with another great autobiography I recently read, that of Benvenuto Cellini. The two men are in many ways opposites. Cellini is a man of the world; his eye is turned exclusively outward; he is all action; he is confident in high society; he rarely blushes and never admits a fault. Rousseau is a man of sentiment and feeling, absorbed in his private world, often timid, awkward, and unsure of himself, and who often makes self-deprecating remarks.

And yet, the more I read, the more I saw strong similarities between these two self-chronicles. They are both massive egotists. If I were to write my autobiography, I’d hope that it would include some nice portraits of people in my life; but in these books there is no compelling portrait of anyone except their authors.

Like many narcissists, their vanity is easily wounded. They are obsessed with slights, and consider anyone who doesn’t show the proper respect to be, not only inconsiderate, but downright villainous. They both make enemies quickly, wherever they go. And yet, the fact that so many people they meet turn against them does not prompt them to pause and reflect; rather, they attribute all antipathy to envy, jealousy, or pure malevolence. Both have persecution complexes; both are paranoid; and both entertain extremely high opinions of their own virtues and abilities. In Rousseau’s own words, he is among “the best of men.”

It occurs to me that the urge to write an autobiography, in an age when autobiography was anything but common, requires a certain amount of narcissism. What surprises me is that these two men, Cellini and Rousseau, are also quite oblivious of themselves and utterly unable to question their own opinion. This is in strong contrast to Montaigne, somebody who Rousseau explicitly scorns:

I have always laughed at the false ingenuousness of Montaigne, who, feigning to confess his faults, takes great care not to give himself any, except such as are amiable; whilst I, who have ever thought, and still think myself, considering everything, the best of men, felt there is no human being, however pure he may be, who does not internally conceal some odious vice.

There may be a grain of truth in accusing Montaigne of attributing only amiable faults to himself (though reports by his contemporaries coincide remarkably well with Montaigne’s self-report). Even so, Montaigne had a quality that Rousseau eminently lacked: the ability to jump out of his own perspective. When playing with his cat, Montaigne paused to reflect “who knows whether she is amusing herself with me more than I with her?” And in that simple question—pushing himself out of his own skull, seeing himself from the eyes of his cat—he transcends all of the searching self-analysis of Rousseau. Rousseau’s total inability to, even for one moment, question his righteousness and his enemies’ wickedness is what makes him, by the end of the book, nearly intolerable—at least for me.

So much for Rousseau’s personality. As a portrait of a man, this book is interesting enough; but as the confessions of one of the most influential thinkers in the 18th century, it is far more so. Rousseau, whatever his faults, was undeniably remarkable. To paraphrase Will Durant, Rousseau, with almost no formal education, abandoned early by his father, wandering incessantly from place to place, setting himself as an enemy of the dominant currents of thought and art of the time, the avowed antagonist both of Rameau, the foremost composer, and Voltaire and Diderot, the foremost writers—this Rousseau nevertheless managed to become the decisive influence on the next century.

Cases like Rousseau’s make me stop and reflect about the nature of intellectual work. Neither a strong reasoner nor an adept researcher—any competent professor could poke gaping holes in his arguments and cite reams of factual inaccuracies—it is Rousseau, not they, who is still being studied at college campuses all over the world, and who will be the foreseeable future. Indisputably he was an excellent stylist, though this hardly accounts for his canonical status.

What sets Rousseau apart, intellectually at least, is his enormous originality. Rousseau himself realizes this:

I know my heart, and have studied mankind; I am not made like anyone I have been acquainted with, perhaps like no one in existence; if not better, I am least claim originality, and whether Nature did wisely in breaking the mold with which she formed me, can only be determined after having read this work.

Rousseau wrote in a way no one had before. His ideas were fresh, his attitude unique. Although he had influences, there is nothing derivative about him. The more I read and the longer I live, the more am I drawn to the conclusion that the ability to form new ideas—genuinely new, not just re-interpretations of old ones—is one of the rarest human faculties. Rousseau had this faculty in abundance. It is impossible to read him within the context of his time and not be utterly astounded at his creativity.

It is just this sort of creativity, the thing we most celebrate and praise, that seems impossible to teach— impossible by definition, since you cannot teach somebody to think totally outside the bounds of your own paradigm. You cannot, in other words, teach someone to transcend everything you teach them. You can teach somebody to solve problems creatively; but how can you teach somebody to examine problems previously unimagined? This is just one of the paradoxes of education, I suppose.

In any case, Rousseau is just another example of those canonical thinkers who could never get tenure nowadays. It’s a funny world.

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Review: Orwell’s Essays

Review: Orwell’s Essays

A Collection of EssaysA Collection of Essays by George Orwell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art.

George Orwell is one of the inescapable writers of the last century. Far from becoming irrelevant, his works seem to become more significant with each passing year (as most recently evidenced by the present administration’s strained relationship with the truth). Orwell himself said that the “final test of any work of art is survival,” and his works seem on track to pass this final test. His dystopian novel recently became a surprise best-seller, almost seventy years after its initial publication. That is more than mere survival.

And yet it isn’t for his political insights that I opened this collection of essays. It was rather—and I feel somewhat silly saying this—for his writing style. Orwell’s writing is, for me, a model of modern prose. His style can accommodate both the abstract and the concrete, the homely and the refined, the pretentious and the vulgar; his prose can satisfy both the academic and the artist, the intellectual and the layperson, the Panurge and the parish priest. It is unmistakably modern, even sleek, while obviously informed by the tastes and standards of the past. It is fiery, angry, and political, while remaining intimate, human, and honest.

Something that repeatedly struck me while reading this collection was an inner conflict in Orwell’s worldview. There are two sides of the man, sometimes in harmony, and sometimes at odds: the writer and the activist. Orwell the writer is captivated by the rhythms of words, the sounds of sentences; he loves ruminating on a strange personality or a memorable story; he is enchanted by the details of daily life. Orwell the activist is outraged at injustice and uncompromising in his moral sense; he sees people as a collection of allies and enemies, taking part in a grand struggle to bring about a better society.

Orwell himself discusses this tension in his little essay, “Why I Write.” In a more peaceful age, he thinks, he could have been an entirely aesthetic writer, perhaps a poet, not paying much attention to politics. It was his firsthand experience of imperialism, poverty, and fascism that activated his political conscience. Specifically, it was the Spanish Civil War that “tipped the scale” for him: “Every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism.”

Be that as it may, Orwell seems to have repeatedly struggled to reconcile this aim with his more humanistic side. In his brilliant essay on Dickens, for example, he spends page after page trying to analyze Dickens as a kind of social philosopher, examining Dickens’s views on work, on the state, on education, and so on. Since Dickens was anything but a philosopher—as Orwell himself admits—this repeatedly leads to frustrating dead ends, and fails completely to do justice to Dickens’s work. It is only in the last section, where Orwell drops this pretense and treats Dickens as a novelist, that the essay becomes deeply insightful. Indeed, it soon becomes clear—it seems clear to me, at least—that Orwell likes Dickens for his writing, and not his activism, however much he may wish to think otherwise.

Other essays exhibit this same tension. In his essay on vulgar postcard art, for example, he notes how backward is the social worldview expressed in the cards; but he is obviously quite fond of them and even ventures to defend them by likening their humor to Sancho Panza’s. His essay on boy’s magazines follows an identical pattern, exposing their conservative ideology while betraying a keen interest, even a warm fondness, for the stories. In his appreciative essay on Rudyard Kipling’s poems, he even goes so far as to defend Kipling’s political views, at least from accusations of fascism.

It is largely due to Orwell’s influence, I think, that nowadays it is uncontroversial to see the political implications in a movie cast or a Halloween costume. In all of these essays, Orwell worked to undermine the naïve distinction between politics and everyday life, showing how we absorb messages about standards, values, and ideologies from every direction. He did not merely state that “All art is propaganda,” but he tried to show it, both in his analyses and his own works. At least half the time, he is utterly convincing in this. (And indeed, Orwell was such a brilliant man that, even when I think he’s involved in a pointless exercise, he makes so many penetrating observations along the way— incidentally, parenthetically—that his writing fully absorbs me. )

We owe a tremendous debt to Orwell for this insight. Nevertheless, I can’t help thinking that there is something terribly limiting about this perspective. All art may be propaganda, but it is not only propaganda; it is not even primarily so. There needs to be room in criticism, as in life, for the non-political. We need to be able to enjoy a novelist because of his characters and not his views on the state, a poet for his lines rather than his opinions, a dirty joke or a trashy magazine just because we want a laugh and a break. Orwell would agree with me up to a point, I think, but would also say that every decision to be “non-political” implicitly accepts the status quo, and is therefore conservative. This may be true; but it is also true that such “non-political” things are necessary to live a full life.

Where I most disagree with Orwell is his conviction that the media we consume—magazines, post cards, popular novels, television—nefariously and decisively shape our worldview. For my part, I suspect that people absorb their opinions more from their community, face-to-face, and then seek out media that corresponds with their pre-existing views: not the reverse. Media may reinforce these views and give them shape and drive, but I don’t think it generates them.

All this is besides the point. I admire Orwell, for his fierce independence, for his sense of outrage and injustice, for his facility with words, for his attempt to blend art and truth. In sum, I admire both the writer and the activist, and I think his work should be read until judgment day.

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Review: Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

Review: Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

Modern RomanceModern Romance by Aziz Ansari

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One firm takeaway from all our interviews with women is that most dudes out there are straight-up bozos.

My introduction to modern romance was abrupt and unexpected. I was back in New York for the holidays, drinking with a few friends, sipping and gulping the wonderful IPAs that I miss when I’m here in Spain.

Sometime deep into the night, one of my friends, who is a gay man—this is relevant to the story; you should also know that I’m a straight guy—asked if anyone wanted to go on his Tinder. “I do!” I said, and soon found myself face to face with the infamous app for the first time in my life.

Now, for the three remaining people who don’t know how Tinder works, it’s very simple: You look at pictures of people, and swipe left if you don’t want to talk to them, right if you do. (In this respect it’s like the Last Judgment.) If someone you’ve approved of also approves of you, then you are both given the option to send messages.

My friend was obviously a stud, because I was getting matches left and right (well, only right). One of these matches was a young man who I’ll call Woodrow Wilson. With permission from my friend, I sent Woodrow a message. The conversation went something like this:

Me: What’s your favorite tree?

Woodrow Wilson: Uh, White Pines are pretty cool I guess.

Me: White Pines? So cliché.

Woodrow Wilson: You’re right, I was only testing the waters. I’m really fond of Quaking Aspens. You?

Me: Now we’re talking. I’ve always been fond of the Shagbark Hickory.

The conversation proceeded like this for about four days, by which time it was clear that I had found my soul mate through my gay friend’s Tinder. Unfortunately, many barriers stood in the way—I’m straight, I was going back to Spain, and I was basically deceiving him—so I didn’t meet Woodrow Wilson. (If you ever read this—hello, and sorry!) But the experience was enough to make me curious about the opportunities and hazards of romance in the modern world.

Being a reluctant single, a very reluctant millennial, and a very, very reluctant member of the modern world, you can imagine I was, well, reluctant to tackle this topic. This book enticed me, not because it was written by Aziz Ansari—I didn’t consider myself a fan, and in college I even passed up the opportunity to see him live on campus—but because he teamed up with a sociologist, Eric Klinenberg, to write it. I listened to the audiobook, nasally narrated by Aziz.

The most striking thing about this book is that, despite its lighthearted tone and frequent funny asides, it is basically a serious and even an earnest book. Sociological statistics, psychological studies, and anthropological analyses are mixed with anecdotes and interviews and a bit of humor to give a quick but surprisingly thorough tour of romance in the contemporary world.

Aziz begins by pointing out that dating in today’s world is strikingly different from dating in my grandparents’ or even my parents’ generation. This is not only because of advances in technology but, more importantly, because of shifts in values. We now have developed what you might call a perfectionistic attitude towards finding a partner. We want to find a “soul mate,” “the one,” somebody who fulfills us and thrills us. Aziz contrasts this with what he calls the “good enough” marriages of yesteryears—finding a partner that satisfies some basic criteria, like having a job and a shiny pocket watch

I myself have noticed this shift from studying anthropology and history. In cultures all around the world—and in the West until quite recently—marriages were considered a communal affair. Aziz’s own parents had an arranged marriage, and according to him have had a long, successful relationship. (To be honest the idea of an arranged marriage has always been strangely appealing to me, since I don’t think any decision of such importance should be left in my hands. But the rest of my generation disagrees, apparently, so now I’m left to rummage through apps.)

Connected to this rise in the “soul mate” marriage is a rise in our preoccupation with romantic love. According to the biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, there are two distinct types of love in the human brain: romantic, and companionate. Romantic love is the kind that writes bad poetry; companionate love is the kind that does the dishes. Romantic love hits early in a relationship and lasts up to a year and a half; companionate love grows slowly over time, perhaps over decades. This division accords well with my own experience.

(Parenthetically, I have long been skeptical, even morbidly suspicious, of romantic love: that kind of idealizing, gushing, delicious, walking on air feeling. To me it seems to be a form of self-deception, convincing yourself that your partner is perfect, even divine, and that nobody else in the world could make you so happy—when the truth is that your partner is a flawed person, only one of many flawed people who could induce the same delirious sensation. Wow, I sound really bitter in this paragraph.)

This cultural shift has been bolstered by our new dating technology. Now we do not only have the expectation that we can find the perfect partner, but we have the tools to do the searching. I can, and sometimes do, scroll through hundreds of faces on my phone per day. All this is very exciting; never before could I have so many romantic options at my fingertips.

But there are some major drawbacks to this. One is what the psychologist Barry Schwartz called the “paradox of choice.” Although you’d think having more options would make people more satisfied, in fact the reverse occurs. I remember watching TV was a lot more fun when I was a kid and I only had a few dozen channels; when we upgraded to hundreds of channels, it became stressful—what if there was something better on? Similarly, after spending three months in a camp in Kenya, eating whatever I was given, I found it overwhelming to go to a pizza place and order. How could I choose from so many toppings?

Along with these broader observations is a treasure trove of statistics and anecdotes that, if you’re like me, you’ll be quoting and misquoting for weeks. I found the little vignettes on the dating cultures in Japan, where there’s a sex crisis, Buenos Aires, where there’s a machismo crisis, and Paris, where there’s lots of infidelity but apparently no crisis, to be particularly memorable.

These anecdotes are not just for mental titillation, but are used to support several tenets of dating advice. Here are just a few takeaways. Check your punctuation before you send a text. When you ask someone out on a date, include a specific time and location, not “wanna hang out some time?” vagueness. Texting people is not a reliable way to gauge if you’ll like them in person; it’s best to ask them out sooner and not prolong a meaningless texting conversation. Take the time to get to know people; rarely do you see the more interesting side of someone’s personality on a first date.

As you can see, this book is quite a rare hybrid: part social science, and part self-help, and part comedy. And yet the book rarely feels disorganized or scatterbrained. Aziz keeps a tight rein on his materials; the writing is compact, clever, and informative. With the notable limitation that this book deals only with heterosexual couples, and covers no topic in serious depth, I can say that it’s hard for me to imagine how any such short book could give so complete a picture of modern romance.

Most impressive is the human touch. What could have potentially been a mere smattering of facts and stories, Aziz makes into a coherent whole by grounding everything in the day-to-day frustrations and realities of the dating world. Aziz knows firsthand how much dating can suck, how tiresome, uncomfortable, and stressful it can be. Yet, for all this, the book is ultimately hopeful.

Beneath all these shifts in values and demographics, all the innovations in dating technologies and changes in romantic habits, all the horror stories and the heartbreaks, beyond the lipstick and the cologne, below the collared shirts and high heeled shoes, above the loud music and the strong liquor, pushing every button and writing every text, is the universal human itch to connect.

This itch has always been with us and always will be. Each generation just learns to scratch it in new and interesting ways.

(If interested in setting something up, please direct all inquiries to my mom.)

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Review: Essays of E.B. White

Review: Essays of E.B. White

Essays of E.B. WhiteEssays of E.B. White by E.B. White
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is really no way for a man to put his arms around a big house plant and still remain a gentleman.

E.B. White’s name, along with Will Strunk’s, is now synonymous with good style. If that isn’t a compliment to a writer, I don’t know what is.

My first encounter with the duo was in my high school English class of junior year. My teacher was old-fashioned enough to believe that we should learn how to use punctuation. This came as a shock, since none of her predecessors had spared so much as a moment on a semicolon. It was with bewilderment and wonder, then, that I opened up The Elements of Style and encountered this sentence: “The colon has more effect than the comma, less power to separate than the semicolon, and more formality than the dash.” How often is so much instruction packed into so few words?

In college I picked up the habit of rereading Strunk and White at least once a year. Probably I should do so more often, since verbal profligacy—Strunk’s sworn enemy, the capital sin of writing—is something that I can’t seem to shake, no matter how often I try. One of the reasons I picked up this book was the hope that, by observing White at work, his example might serve where his precepts failed.

With White, the style is the man; and any discussion of his works inevitably becomes an analysis of his prose. To begin with, White is not what I’d call a vocal writer. A vocal writer is one whose writing seems to come alive and speak, whose writing cannot be read in your own voice, only in the author’s own accent. White’s writing, while personable, charming, and full of feeling, does not leap from the page into your living room. It is writerly writing.

His style is conversational, not aphoristic. His sentences are not pointed, his wit is not barbed, his lines are not militantly memorable. His writing is loose; it breathes like a cotton shirt; it is drafty like an old wooden cabin. You might say that his essays are a controlled ramble, a balancing act that looks like a casual stroll. They take their time. Like a scatterbrained errand boy, they pause in a thousand places for momentary rendezvous and covert dalliances before reaching their destinations.

White seldom speaks in abstractions, and hardly makes an argument. His writing is held together not by the logic of ideas but by the tissue of memory. This is partly why the style is unfilterable from the content. There is no thesis to take away. He is not trying to make a point, but to communicate his perspective, to encapsulate a piece of his personality.

White’s personality is delightful. Modest and gently humorous, he is animated by a curiosity for the little things that comprise his world. He can study a train schedule with avidity, he can spend hours gazing at a spider’s web, he can write poetry on the life-cycle of a pig. This is what makes him such a consummate essayist. In the humdrum facts and quotidian occurrences of life he hears music and meaning, and spiderlike weaves his own web to stitch them into a delicate structure:

As I sat at table, gnawing away at a piece of pie, snow began falling. At first it was an almost imperceptible spitting from the gray sky, but it soon thickened and came driving in from the northeast. I watched it catch along the edge of the drive, powder the stone wall, and whiten the surface of the dark frozen pond, and I knew that all along the coast from Kittery on, the worst mistakes of men were being quietly erased, the lines of their industrial temples softened, and U.S. 1 crowned with a cold, inexpensive glory

There is not much to be said against these essays, except what can be said against all stylists. Since what White says is less important than the way he says it, upon finishing the reader is left with nothing but echoes and aftertastes. Yet it is a delicious aftertaste, tart and tangy with a touch of smoke, and it whets my appetite for more.

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Review: Publishing 101

Review: Publishing 101

Publishing 101Publishing 101 by Jane Friedman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I teach the rules, even though there aren’t any.

Several years ago I embarked upon a novel (my second; although my first attempt was so slapdash and haphazard that it hardly deserves the name). As it gradually took form, and draft after draft accumulated, the idea that I might actually do something with it appeared less and less absurd. But few things are more mysterious to me than the world of publishing. Every time I tried to investigate, a hornet’s nest of unfamiliar entities—agents, editors, query letters, submissions guidelines, genre, category, digital platform—swarmed and buzzed so menacingly until I gave up, overwhelmed. I needed someone to hold my hand, a Virgil to guide me through the several circles of pre-publication hell. That’s where Friedman came in.

Friedman has been in the publishing industry a long time, notably working as the publisher and editorial director of Writer’s Digest. Now she is perhaps best-known for her blog on writing advice. This book was made from that blog, stitching together the most popular posts since 2008 into a basic guide. In theory, you could get everything in this book for free by rummaging around her site. But the book is cheap on Kindle, so what the heck.

Friedman is a sober and pragmatic guide. This is what I like about her. She is not promising miracles, she knows that no approach will work for everyone (or even most people), she has no illusions about the failure rate. There is no magical thinking in this book, only cold and calculated strategies to incrementally increase your likelihood of success. Absent from this book are those “self-help miracle stories” that one so often finds in the writings of professional advice givers.

She is also a fountain of information. Here you will find advice on traditional publication, self-publishing, as well as ample instruction on digital marketing, online platform, and all the other things that keep me up at night. Indeed, Friedman is most enthusiastic and convincing when it comes to online self-promotion. This is unsurprising, since this was her main avenue of success. Still, I think many would-be writers will be surprised by how much of this book is given over to marketing rather than researching and contacting publishers. I know I was.

There is an awful lot of sales talk in this book. Trying to publish a book is, after all, just marketing a product (although I find it bemusing to consider my poor manuscript a commodity). And I must admit that all this talk of hard-selling, soft-selling, building a network, connecting with fans, and suchlike salesy things sometimes gives me a queasy feeling in my stomach. Many writers, I suspect, write to get away from all that, not to make it a permanent fixture in their lives. Writers are not known for being particularly social, suave, or business-savvy creatures.

Nevertheless I think Friedman’s advice is sane and sensible. Her main nugget of wisdom is that your online presence should not be forced or mercenary. Write a blog about something you care about; connect with people just for fun; do things that interest you and that are connected with your creative work. It takes patience and persistence to establish any kind of reputation, following, or clout, so you’ve got to see your digital activity as something rewarding rather than a chore. Easier said than done, I’m sure.

Like anything under the sun, this book is not without its flaws. The main flaw, as Friedman herself acknowledges, is that it was originally written as a series of blog posts. (At one point she says: “If I read a book and think ‘I could’ve gotten this from a series of blog posts,’ then I consider it a failure.” Luckily for her, I’m more lenient in this regard.) The writing is filled with lists, bullet-points, and a relentless stream of short paragraphs. Such writing works extremely well on a blog, of course, where most people are simply scanning for information; but in a book, it grows tiresome.

Another thing I missed was concrete examples. Friedman’s advice, though sensible, was often abstract; often I wished she would give me the story of an author she helped, or just a short vignette about someone who successfully implemented her strategies. I’m sure she has many such stories, and I wished she had used some of them, since they would have brought warmth and blood to potentially anemic advice.

There were also many times I was inclined to doubt her recommendations. For example, Friedman is very keen on authors having their own websites. Now maybe I am exceptional, but I have never, not once, visited an author’s website. Have you? Also, she suggests that you gather emails and send out blasts (not indiscriminately) when you have a big update. But again, I habitually delete all emails that aren’t work related or personal. Doesn’t everyone?

All these quibbles and queries aside, however, I think that this is an excellent book. Friedman is realistic, thorough, and businesslike, without sacrificing the raison d’être of writing: to create and to enjoy the process of creation. Unfortunately for me, I am now fairly convinced that my own poor manuscript hasn’t much commercial potential (but now that I see how brutal the publishing industry is, I’m not sure I mind). In any case, for those lost souls wandering around inferno, looking for the path to paradise, Friedman will be your guide. But be warned: a long climb up Mt. Purgatory awaits!

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Review: Conquest of Happiness

Review: Conquest of Happiness

The Conquest of HappinessThe Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In adolescence, I hated life and was continually on the verge of suicide, from which, however, I was restrained by the desire to know more mathematics. Now, on the contrary, I enjoy life; I might almost say that with every year that passes I enjoy it more.

Like many people, I suspect, I find Russell an extremely agreeable person. And though he is, no doubt, several orders of magnitude cleverer than I am, I still identify very strongly with him. Perhaps this is only wishful thinking, but the more I read Russell, the more I find that, in outlook and temperament, I am rather similar to the man—apart from his aristocratic English manners, of course. Thus it was a pleasure to read his views on what makes for a happy life, as almost everything he said resonated very strongly with me.

Russell’s aim is to examine not extraordinary grief or mourning or tragedy, but the usual sort of unhappiness that Thoreau meant when he said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” And Russell’s message boils down to something simple: happiness comes from taking a genuine interest in the world, and unhappiness consists in spending too much time thinking about oneself and one’s problems.

Here is a simple example. If, on my walk back from work, I run into my neighbor, who then proceeds to tell me—for the umpteenth time—about his recent hunting trip, I can choose to see it as an imposition on myself, a needless waste of my time, a sign of this man’s stupidity, and finally as a part of a general decline in good manners and good taste. Or I can, with any luck, choose to see it as an amusing foible, as a window into another person’s life, or at the very least as something absolutely trivial and not worth fussing about. The difference is that the first is self-centered and more than a bit unrealistic, while in the second scenario my attention is directed outwards and I maintain a sense of perspective.

Russell fills up a book by exploring this idea from a variety of angles. What are the emotions that focus our attention inward and cause us to lose our perspective and our zest for life? Envy, greed, guilt, ruthless competitiveness, the need for approval, fear of public opinion. To combat these pulls, Russell recommends ways to constantly remind ourselves that we aren’t, in fact, the center of the universe, and the world around us is not some backdrop for our problems or an obstacle in the way, but is rather extremely interesting and a good deal more important than our own lives.

One of Russell’s key strategies is to take an interest in things that have no practical benefit to us. Simple as this sounds, many don’t seem to understand this lesson. It always strikes me as bizarre and shortsighted when someone says, “Why should I learn about this? It doesn’t affect me in any way. Will this ever be useful?” But isn’t this the point? Learning about wildflowers, for example, is relaxing because you won’t have to rely on this knowledge to pass an exam or to get a paycheck; it’s a relief from your usual cares, and one that, besides, enriches your experience of the world. And not only does learning about wildflowers enrich your experience, but it also reminds you that there’s an entire region of reality—one that people have devoted their lives to—that will be completely unaffected if you go bankrupt tomorrow. Isn’t that a nice thought?

In some places, this book shows its age. Russell speaks of women in ways that would probably get him tarred and feathered now; though, to be fair, at the time he was considered extremely progressive. At another point, Russell partly blames the growing unhappiness of women on the decline in good domestic service. Yet these bits are easy to ignore and forgive; and much of the book still feels relevant. Russell is particularly good on envy, competitiveness, and workaholism. These three—very prevalent here in New York City—are deeply intertwined.

So many people—and I am not excluded from this—make themselves miserable by thinking about all the nice things happening to everyone else, all the money their cousin is making (who’s not, after all, any smarter than me!), and all the luck that some people seem to have. They look in the mirror and think about the handsomer fellow on television; they receive their paycheck and think about how much their boss must make. This has been exacerbated by social media, but is, I think, something we all must deal with, especially in a capitalistic society where, ostensibly at least, your social position is determined by your own merit. The dark side of living in a supposed meritocracy is that people at the bottom or even comfortably in the middle feel that they are failures for not reaching the top—which is obviously absurd, especially if you realize that the people at the top most likely aren’t any happier than you are.

Thinking about yourself purely in relation to others leads directly to a certain amount of competitiveness; many people struggle, not to attain something they need, but simply to win a race against their peers. This is the cause of obsessive working. Now don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with working, and working hard, but some people have completely lost a sense of perspective. In fact, I recently read a piece by someone who had spent his life in advertising—Lind Redding was his name—who detailed this very phenomenon after he was diagnosed with cancer and started looking back on his working life. After working furiously for decades, he concluded that, after all, he was only trying to make advertisements, so why on earth had he spent so many stressful hours at the office rather than at home?

This has happened to me, though on a much smaller scale, when I have been convinced that what I was working on was terribly important and that the consequences for not doing it perfectly would be disastrous—when, in reality, what I was doing was of no importance and the consequences of doing it imperfectly would be nonexistent. A proper sense of perspective would have helped me avoid this, for I would realize that other people’s success doesn’t make me a failure, that I have more than I need already, that my task is a very minor event in the universe, and that the earth won’t detonate if every detail isn’t just right. Or at least, I hope it won’t.

I’m getting a bit carried away. To return to the book, Russell, with his usually acute mind, tackles this trouble, among others, offering friendly advice on how to avoid it and to maintain a mental balance. And lucky for the reader, Russell’s advice is usually summed up in wonderful epigrams that sparkle with good-natured wit. I constantly found myself highlighting sentences in this book, as I read in continuous astonishment at Russell’s skill with the pen. His style is neither flashy nor even conspicuous; he uses no tricks, no elaborate metaphors, no high-flown words. Yet every time I read Russell, I find myself filled with envy at his writing ability; I think it’s criminal that there should be someone so much better than I am. Russell would, of course, remind me that after all there will always be someone who’s a better writer than I am, and that his prose should be appreciated as a gift rather than considered as a reproach to my own. Now, how do you argue with a person like that?

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