I wrote a little about this one earlier this month, so this will be brief. The basic premise is that we can 'design' our happiness by consciously shaping our environment, our decisions, and the way we allocate our attention:
‘The production process for happiness is therefore how you allocate your attention. The inputs into your happiness are the plethora of stimuli vying for your attention. These are converted to happiness by the attention you pay to them. A focus on attention is the missing link between inputs and outputs. The same life events and circumstances can affect your happiness a lot or a little depending on how much attention you pay to them...You therefore need to consider how you can make and facilitate better decisions about what to pay attention to and in what ways.’
But one of the biggest obstacles we unwittingly create for ourselves is an inability to understand hedonic adaptation, and a tendency to extrapolate future emotions based on present emotions:
‘We frequently make mistakes about how much something will make us happy, even when we are convinced that happiness is all there is. We make mistakes about our future happiness when we pay undue attention to a) the effects of change; b) the differences between two options; c) current feelings or; d) unrepresentative snapshots of past experiences.’
Essays in Love - Alain de Botton
This book in part inspired the (difficult to write and perhaps over-vulnerable) essay I wrote earlier this month: Loving, leaving, and being gone. That post was an attempt to unravel the strange death of an identity I experienced after a break-up nearly two years ago, the way it tore me to shreds and left me unable to connect with anyone for eighteen months, the long road to understanding that the chaotic, self-sabotaging aftermath wasn’t anyone’s fault, it was something that needed to happen for me to find a new maturity.
Essays in Love is perhaps a similar endeavour. Ostensibly fiction (though I question whether any book about love can be truly fictional), it plots the narrator’s relationship with Chloe, beginning with their initial meeting on a plane, then delving into the crisis of confidence her reciprocated affection provokes:
‘Every fall into love involves the triumph of hope over self-knowledge. We fall into love hoping we won't find in another what we know is in ourselves, all the cowardice, weakness, laziness, dishonesty, compromise and stupidity...We locate inside another person what eludes us within ourselves and through our union with the beloved hope to maintain (against the evidence of all self-knowledge) a precarious faith in our species.’
Crushes are a form of escapism, reciprocated affection shatters that:
‘We fall in love because we long to escape from ourselves with someone as ideal as we are corrupt. But what if such a being were one day to turn around and love us back? We could only be shocked. How could they be as divine as we had hoped when they have the bad taste to approve of someone like us?’
Later, the narrator delves into the way we rely on others to define the parameters of our identity because we lack solitary solidity:
‘The problem with needing others to legitimate our existence is that we are very much at their mercy to have a correct identity ascribed to us.’
‘Our selves could be compared to an amoeba, whose outer walls are elastic, and therefore adapt to the environment.’
I've always struggled with the extent of the detachment that tends to follow breakups (from a Flatsound song; I can't wait 'til I see your face / and my brain thinks that it's looking at a stranger.') People who were once the centre of our lives turn into hostile, repellant strangers:
‘There is something appalling in the idea that a person for whom you would sacrifice anything today might in a few months cause you to cross a road or a bookshop.’
The Gifts of Reading - Robert McFarlane
First of all, this one was disappointingly short - essentially a single essay, which makes it hard to write about it as a book. Still, it seems written more as a device for sparking thought than as an end in itself. McFarlane reflects on books he's received as gifts, and how both the books and the act of being given them changed him.
Books, for me, are the sweetest gift of all (even if they're just lent because, as we all know, people rarely return them.) So if you want a book that can be read in the time it takes to drink a coffee, but which will leave you with enough psychological caffeine to last days, try this one.
My manager lent me this (thanks Kat!) and it was unexpectedly illuminating. Main lesson: I am amazingly ignorant about 99% of the planet I live on. Marshall uses geography as a lens to explain different parts of the world: the way people live, how they think, how they relate to the rest of humanity, how they thrive or suffer, how they think about themselves, how they fight.
Everything is shaped by geography. The landscape of a country shapes everything and dictates all it has been and can be. We are, literally, prisoners of geography. Mountains, rivers, oceans, forests, resources, climate and soil decide our destiny and in turn, direct the destiny of surrounding areas. Geography is what makes us believe we're more different from each other than we truly are. But as we look to the stars, we're forced to confront the ludicrous nature of that belief:
'When we are reaching for the stars, the challenges ahead are such that we will perhaps have to come together to meet them: to travel the universe not as Russians, Americans, or Chinese but as representatives of humanity. But so far, although we have broken free from the shackles of gravity, we are still imprisoned in our own minds, confined by our suspicion of the "other," and thus our primal competition for resources. There is a long way to go.'
The Decline of the English Murder - George Orwell
Somewhere between the ages of 6 and 12, I read the majority of the classic authors' works: Orwell, Kafka, Dickens, Twain, Mary Shelley, Stoker, Laurie Lee, Verne, Conrad, Jack London, and the like. Then I simply took for granted that I'd read them and didn't need to bother again. More recently, I've recognised that I was too young to truly appreciate them and it's time to revisit the classics. Orwell is one such author - I read most of his books age 8 and loved them, but didn't understand their depths.
So lately I've been enjoying his essay collections. The Decline is a collection of Orwell's evergreen essays on everything from the substandard quality of English murders, to his own development as a writer:
'Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One could never undertake such a thing if one were not driven by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct which makes a baby squall for attention.'
Model Behavior - Jay Mcinerney
I read (and loved) Bright Lights, Big City a few months ago, then moved on through Mcinerney’s back catalogue. Model Behaviour is a fairly literal rewrite of Bright Lights, except it’s set in the ‘90s, not the ‘80s and is a little funnier and more fragmented. Mcinerney's writing is almost too easy to read, almost too light and frothy despite the satirical undertones, the literary equivalent of sweet potato fries: too easy to consume in one sitting, with the pretext of not quite being junk. The characters (especially the protagonist's sister Brooks and friend Jeremy) are exaggerated caricatures that nonetheless ring true.
Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives - Theodore Zeldin
A short book, interspersed with childlike streaky works of art, about the necessity of conversation and the role it plays in changing the world. Initially, I half-feared it would be another book about appearing witty in conversation. But, as Zeldin puts it:
'But there are more interesting things in life than polishing one's armour.'
Zeldin sees conversation as a means of escaping all the traps us and becoming more:
'We become the prisoners of our families, our genes, our memories, only if we wish to be prisoners. It is by conversations with others, by mixing different voices with our own, that we can turn out individual life into an original work of art.'
He questions the role talk now plays in the workplace:
'Work increasingly consists of talk...Everywhere, the higher you climb up the hierarchy, the more time you spend discussing. There are very few pinnacles where you need only listen to your own voice.'
Somewhere Towards The End - Diane Athill
A fascinating, moving reflection on how it feels to reach your ninth decade of life and reflect on the richness of the past, the value of the present, and the scarcity of the future. Athill takes an exquisite, wise view on old age:
'Life works in terms of species rather than individuals. The individual just has to be born, to develop to a certain point at which it can procreate, and then to fall away into death to make way for its successors, and humans are no exception whatever they may fancy.'
'I am not sure that digging in our past guilt is a useful occupation for the very old, given that one can do so little about them. I have reached a stage at which one hopes to be forgiven for concentrating on how to get through the present.'
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami
It's been a while since I read a solid, long fiction book - it's not a conscious choice, non-fiction just tends to grab my attention more often. I read Norwegian Wood and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running last year and lumped Murakami in the category of naturalistic, vaguely relateable authors without delving any further into his work. But I was recommended this one, took the best part of a weekend to read it cover to cover, and would have been happy for it to be twice as long.
It's one of those rare books that resists definition, merging too many genres and strands of plot to fit neatly into any single category, or to be possible to summarise. There's no final sense of all the threads tied up neatly - it's simply a book where a lot of discordant stuff happens and that, in itself, seems to be the point.
The story of the best-selling book ever in the English speaking world can't not be interesting and despite my general lack of interest in the subject matter, it highlighted some new thoughts about the nature of books in general. Bragg plots the history of the King James Bible (another one I read in primary school and never revisited), charting the ways it has been used to oppress and to liberate, to restrict and to free, to make peace and to spark conflict:
'How and why did such a book come to be written? With what was that core so fire filled that it became the sun to a solar system of human life? How did what was asserted to be the Word of God become the key which unlocked so many doors of history, Christian, non-Christian and even anti-Christian?'
This book also makes clear the sheer power books have to spread ideas and shape those they touch, particularly when Bragg describes the lengths people went to in order to bring English translations to the masses:
'The Medieval Oxford scholars, long woolen gowned, staff in hand, took to the mud tracks of England with their concealed manuscript bibles in English. They traveled secretly through unculled forests and barely inhabited wild lands, hiding in safe houses, forever fugitive. They were a guerrilla movement and they were called Lollards...Anyone caught with a copy would be tortured and killed. Yet the Lollards persisted; for more than a century they roved the land and passed on the word.'
That's it for this month - as always feel free to let me know what you've been reading.