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Sunday, March 5, 2006

Chapter One Hundred Two, in which one Thing leads to Another

Several weeks ago your Bibliothecary visited a discount book store. One of the titles we acquired was The Art of Travel, by Alain de Botton, a nice compact first edition volume with the look of leather. We thought this would make a valuable addition to a small accumulation of titles by the same author, a couple which we had read and vaguely recalled enjoying.

We carried this new book with us on the out-of-town book hunt featured in the Chesterfieldian Chapters Eighty-Nine through Ninety-One. As soon as we began to read, we were reminded why we enjoyed the author so much. He employed a Socratic monologue in a mix of fact and fiction that could be compared to Kundera's proclaimed style of writing about the author's discovery of his characters. It was, to steal a phrase, unputdownable.

Having recently finished a novel we were reading, our thoughts turned to revisiting de Botton. We checked our collection and found one title, The Romantic Movement, that our memory did not recall reading. We began, and though there was more plot to this book than the travel book, the philosophical ideas were no less intriguing.

At our humble bookshop, we are constantly pausing to browse a book that catches our eye. Not a day passes that we don't find something else that we would like to read. We have begun so many--20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Federalist Papers, Lamb, and most recently The Virginian--and there are so many more we think we should be reading--Durant's voluminous survey of civilization, everything by Gould, all Native American history. So yesterday we were led by our reading of de Botton to dip our toes, first into Greek myth, and then into Plato.

A few weeks ago one of our regular readers came in the shop and revealed a new interest in philosophy. He said his fiction reading had led him to look into the subject of the occult, which had turned him on to some of the great philosophers, and he had become instantly hooked. Another of our regulars buys a different Rand title nearly every month. We have had little direct experience reading the philosophers, a smattering of Nietzsche being the furthest extent. Why this should be we cannot adequately say, because now it seems as if there is no more obvious thing for a writer than to live an examined life.

Looking more deeply into the section of philosophy, we pull out Socrates Cafe, by Christopher Phillips, and begin to read. This is the story of a man who gives up everything to facilitate Socratic dialogues in various locales around the country. Though mainly about his experience, the central philosophic questions form a general introduction to the discipline. And so, right in the middle of Verne, Publius, Moore, Wister, de Botton, and the three or four other books we are currently engaged in at home, we dive into Phillips' book.

Books, then, are like literary Russian dolls: we begin reading one, and inside we find another one, which we begin reading and find inside another one, and so on, and so on. To put it another way, reading is the tree trunk from which books branch endlessly toward the sky. On the road of life, books are never a dead end, and pleasure is truly found in the journey, in getting lost along the way, in leaving the map behind. We read a novel by Proust or Irving and are led off in search of paintings by Vermeer and Bruegel, which result in discoveries in photography, composition, and medieval life, new fiction titles by Chevalier and Rocquet, and then feature films. We read a tale by Wilde and discover another by Huysmans, and Louys, and Barney, which lead us to a biography of Cavalieri and an interest in opera. The story of the Boston Tea Party brings about knowledge of the Sons of Liberty, which engenders an interest in Adams, and the American Revolution, and the Bolshevik Revolution, and the charisma of Lenin, and the corruption of power, and back again to the driving principles of the Founding Fathers.

Inside books are digressions and detours, new roads and uncharted lands, histories and futures. We need only open one, and we are embarked on a lifetime of endless discovery.


  1. Lovely post.

    I found and read The Art of Travel not long ago and absolutely loved it. I've also read How Proust Can Change Your Life and enjoyed it before I'd ever read any Proust.

    Your ideas of books as Russion dolls reminded me of Italo Calvino's book If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, an amazing book for the bookish.

  2. Yes, books are like Matryoshkas, except we're on the inside and the world keeps expanding as we go along!

  3. Very nicely put. Like you I relish the meandering journeys that take me from one book to the next and the next. I agree that no book is a dead end but I also find that some provide more fruitful beginnings than others. I think that one of the reasons that I so enjoy reading literary biography is the myriad of other books to which each one invariably leads me.

  4. I'm so pleased I'm not alone in the admiration of de Botton. I find him delicious! With an ever growing "to be read" pile of books, it's good to be reminded of the ones you just love. Thank you for pointing the way back (interesting how cyclical life is, eh?) to him.

  5. How Proust Can Change Your Life is on my want list.

  6. In unpacking many many boxes of books after our move, I came across two things:
    1) Kiss & Tell by Alain de Boton --I loved this so much upon a first read many years ago that I actually bought it for several girlfriends. I believe it had more to do with us all being single and the particular insights de Boton had about how you know you are with the "right" person that allows you to be your best self. Not sure that the novel itself is brilliant as I look back on it now...but worth a read for a few good philisophical nuggets if you can fit it into your reading schedule.

    2)How Proust Can Change Your Life -- I have an extra copy. Should I send? Let me know!