All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age

I began reading the chapter on Nihilism the day after Thanksgiving, or Black Friday. This brilliant philosophical work is worth a deep perusal. The authors explore Homer, Dante, Melville, Kant, David Foster Wallace, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love), Aristotle, Descartes, Shakespeare, and Jesus. Their claim is that we’re spiraling into a dark nihilistic world, but we can prevent our total demise by opening up ourselves to being guided by a polytheistic view (appreciation for the smaller moments, perhaps). We put too much pressure on ourselves to be self-directed, need to give in and join the flow of the universe, let ourselves be directed.
I love any book that has a whole chapter on the amazingness of Moby Dick.
The Quotable Bits (I also love dog-earring a page only to find someone else has done the same thing):

The proper performance of the ritual is therefore motivated by, but also reinforces and strengthens, a deep commitment to the basic Homeric sense of the sacred: that it is the highest form of human excellence to recognize, be amazed by, and be grateful for whatever it is that draws you to act at your best.

Perhaps this is a lesson about the sacred that we are now in a position to appreciate: when things are going at their best, when we are the most excellent version of ourselves that we can be, when we are, for instance, working together with others as one, then our activity seems to be drawn out of us by an external force. These are shining moments in life, wondrous moments that require our gratitude. In those episodes of excellence, no matter the domain, Odysseus’s voice should ring through our heads: “Be silent; curb your thoughts; do not ask questions. This is the work of the Olympians.”

As the great Phaeacian King Alcinous says about Odysseus’s sorrows, “The gods brought this about: for men they wove the web of suffering, that men to come might have a theme to sing.”

That is ultimately why we must lower, or at least shift, our conceit of attainable felicity. For Ahab’s determined monotheism covers up the very real and polytheistic joys that are already to be found right here on earth. If you recognized the kind of joy that is already around you, at least some of the time, then you will see that this is a mood that you have in the here and now. Not forever, and not always. But you can appreciate it when the opportunity presents itself.

The task of the craftsman is not to generate the meaning, but rather to cultivate in himself the skill for discerning the meanings that are already there.

Alain de Botton’s 6 books of wisdom

“Most philosophy books are incredibly boring (who needs sleeping pills when you could read Hegel or Kant) so you have to choose what you read very carefully. Here are the six books which brought me most pleasure, and even more importantly, wisdom.”
The Essays: Montaigne
Montaigne likes to point out that philosophers don’t know everything, and that they would be a lot wiser if they laughed at themselves a little more. He also writes in a personal and often very frank way designed to shock the prudish. “Kings and philosophers shit, and so do ladies,” he says, “Even on the highest throne in the world, we are seated still upon our arses.”
Letters from a Stoic: Seneca
Seneca belonged to the Stoic school of philosophy, which is all about teaching you how to respond calmly to disaster. We tend to imagine that cheering people up involves saying happy things. But Seneca says the saddest things and strangely enough, he is very consoling. “What need is there to weep over parts of life?” he asks, “The whole of it calls for tears.”
Essays and Aphorisms: Schopenhauer
Arthur Schopenhauer is another great pessimist who makes you feel happier. He makes some brilliant analyses of why love affairs tend to go wrong (he’s perfect to read after a break up). His general drift is that you’d be mad to expect happiness from a relationship.
Twilight of the Idols: Nietzsche
A much misunderstood philosopher, seen as barking mad, but actually very wise and sane. He tells us nice things about the need for struggle in life. No pain, no gain, or as he put it; “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.”
Collected Works: Epicurus
Epicurus was the first philosopher to say that pleasure was the most important thing in life. People took him to mean sensual pleasure and the word “epicurean” has been linked to gluttony ever since. But read the real Epicurus and you’ll see that his idea of pleasure was quite unmaterial; in fact, it was all about having a group of good friends and reading books together outdoors.
The Last Days of Socrates: Plato
Plato recounts the last days of his mentor and teacher Socrates, famously made to drink hemlock by the people of Athens. It’s a tear-jerking account, as the funny and wise Socrates is put to death by his ignorant contemporaries. It’s also a lesson in how to stand up for your beliefs and inspiration for anyone standing up against the will of the majority.

Waiter Rant: Thanks for the Tip–Confessions of a Cynical Waiter

Quick and utterly forgettable beach read about the service industry from the perspective of a seminary dropout turned waiter. I needed a light read to off-ramp from the heady stories I’ve been reading lately, and this was a piece of bubblegum quickly consumed and spat out. The premise: out of work, desperate for cash, he takes a gig as a waiter, sees firsthand the brutality of the job- angry owners, psychotic waitstaff, harried chefs. He moves on to a second restaurant, works there for years, develops a blog where he rants about customers. Sprinkled in with stories from the floor are his attempts at writing. He sadly watches time pass and feels disconnected from it all. Eventually he scores a book deal (so meta!) and ramps down his shifts, is sacked for bad attitude, goes to a calmer joint with only a few shifts a week. Poorly edited, he repeats himself, mentioning the off-cycle lifestyle of waiters and how awesome it is to not have to search for parking because when waiters are off, everyone else is on.
Skippable.

Orion You Came And You Took All My Marbles

Dizzying work, not quite sure what happens in this one. Is this an insane asylum crew, does she just have amnesia, what? Even while you aren’t sure what’s happening, you’re driven forward in mad bursts of playful words and phrasing.
I fear this is the type of writer I would be, jettisoning convention to admire the turn of a phrase, a bow to each other, the Quadrille.
Some bits about shoemakers and the fantastic collection of handmade 9.5 size shoes. Mr. Uppal of Up all Puppet, the professor, PU. There’s gravel, and golfcarts, and shrimp from Tiki Ty. There’s Bandersea, where people take rests, most noticeably Kiki B. There’s the Lamb, and Murphy, and Binelli handing out assignments. There’s the great mystery of pillows. Deviled eggs coming gushing out of pockets along with picnic baskets and madelines.

The Count of Monte Cristo

Revenge is a dish best served over decades. A spellbinding tale populated with double dozens of characters, so many I need a map to track their various names and connections. The quick and short of it, Edmund Dantes is erroneously accused and imprisoned on the eve of his marriage to Mercedes, love of his life, by Fernand (Mercedes’ cousin) and Danglars (jealous of Dantes’ rise to captain) accusing him of delivering a letter from Napolean to his followers. Villeforte is the deputy crown prosecutor in Marseille, but he sees that the letter is addressed to his father, thus dumps Dantes in the dungeons of Château d’If. Dantes acquires the ability to see in the dark, hears his neighbor cellmate scratching away in a tunnel attempt towards freedom, then spending years apprenticing at the Abbe’s knowledge tree. The Abbe knows of a hidden fortune, which he shares with Dantes, then dies. Dantes takes the place of the corpse, thinks he’ll be buried alive, but instead is tossed into the sea with a cannonball attached to his corpse bag. With his knife, he escapes from the bag, finds the treasure, and embarks on a long awaited plan on revenge against Fernand, Danglars, and Villeforte.
Mercedes has married Fernand in his absence, who profited wildly during the war. Danglars became a very successful banker. Villefort becomes a prominent crown prosecutor. The count of Monte Cristo (e.g. Edmund Dantes, Sinbad the Sailor, Lord Wilmore, Abbé Busoni) sweeps into Paris and begins unraveling the success of their past decade. Delicious. I am doing a grave injustice in not further explaining, but you should read it, I promise.
***
Reco’d (as his favorite book) by L to the B

The Razor’s Edge

Gorgeous book whose existence had escaped me until recently. First sentence gold, “I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.” Told from a writer’s perspective, freely embellishing the tale told him from other participants. Dipping a gold-plated toe into the waters of the Ganges, vacillating from the wealthy, royalty-stocked society circles to seedy Parisian clubs with painted ladies, stretching out on monk cells in India. The title comes from the Upanishads: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to Salvation is hard.”
The narrator is a British writer, friends with Elliott Templeton, an American gentleman transposed onto Parisian society. The story revolves around Elliott, his niece Isabel, her engaged beau Larry, and her eventual husband Gray. Larry returns from WWI with the intent to “loaf” which disturbs Isabel to no end, the proper place of an American man in a job to work and keep her to circumstances she’s used to. He determines to live in Paris for a few years, loafing, which equates to reading ten hours a day and attending lectures at the Sorbonne, learning Greek and Latin. At the end of the two years, Isabel arrives and demands to know if he is returning to the US, which of course he is not, since he’s only just begun his journey for knowledge. Isabel marries Gray instead, has a lively and rich decade before the stock market crash wipes them out. They return to Paris, to live in uncle Elliott’s apartment while Gray gets his legs back under him. Larry floats in and out of the picture.
Best parts were Larry’s quest for knowledge, something I can relate to, the need to absorb and understand the world beyond its everyday. “The dead look quite dead when they’re dead.”

A Good Man Is Hard To Find and Other Stories

I perpetually have trouble with flipping the adjectives in the title, something I blame on seeing posters with the inverted version all throughout my teenage years and 20s. Since Flannery was a good Southern Catholic writer who wasn’t afraid to get gritty or mean or dirty, I expected to like her more than I did. Maybe it was my mood, a malaise of sorts. Title story has a family driving to Florida for vacation, winding up murdered by a serial killer on the loose. The rest of the stories are a blur, packed with dialect, brooding, country bumpkins gone to the city, one legged girls getting swindled out of their wooden leg by the Bible salesman.