Doug Bruns

The Most Influential Book

In Books, Reading, Uncategorized on February 10, 2019 at 3:38 pm
Château de Montaigne where the Essays where written.

I was recently asked about the book that has exerted the most influence over me. This is a big question, as I’ve been a reader all of my life. I’m no longer a young man and that means a lot of books have contributed to my reading life. Many of them have had an influence over me. For instance, I remember reading Mark Twain as a little boy. I consumed everything he wrote. He made me want to be a writer. Of course, the social and cultural implications of his books were lost on me. Instead, I was reading for the great stories and adventures. Huck and Jim flowing down the Mississippi. Tom and Becky in the cave, and so on. Twain taught me to love reading. Later, as an adolescent, it was Henry David Thoreau. “Simplify, simplify,” he counseled. I only wish I’d followed his advice earlier. Thoreau, among others, taught me to love ideas. As a young man I set upon a self-defined course of reading, the design of which was to consume what I deemed to be the so-called important books, particularly of the modern era. Joyce, and Proust, for instance.

But the question remains. What single book has exerted the most influence over me? I was recently discussing the desert island idea with a reader friend. You know, what five books would you want if stranded on a desert island? I spent a good bit of time considering this. Here’s my list of five desert island books: Moby Dick, Walden, Plutarch’s Lives, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Montaigne’s Essays. These are the books with which I could spend the last of my days and be satisfied — as satisfied as one can be, that is, stranded on a desert island. While compiling my list it occurred to me: The book exerting the most influence over my life is Montaigne’s Essays.

The Master and his book.

To me, the Essays, contain all the essential knowledge and information necessary to being a good human being. They point to beauty, the human condition, history, philosophy, to the meaning of life, and so on. I am not, of course, unique in this evaluation. The Essays have withstood the test of time for a reason. (They were written in the 16th century.) But the influence, for me, extends far beyond the normally recognized genius of the collection. Montaigne has been my guide and teacher. It was my Montaigne who told me that I should read Epictetus. And from there, like a spider plant sending out shoots, I sprang to Plato, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch. He introduced me to his friend Seneca and from there I moved on to Tacitus, then Gibbons. But Montaigne’s influence worked in another direction too.

E.B. White at work in his Maine boathouse.

Several years ago while browsing in a used bookstore, I opened a copy of the Essays of E.B.White. I read the introduction where White discusses the challenges of being an essayist. The intro includes the sentence, “But when I am discouraged or downcast I need only fling open the door of my closet, and there, hidden behind everything else, hangs the mantle of Michel de Montaigne, smelling slightly of camphor.” I bought and consumed the book, in the assurance of Montaigne’s approval. Consequently, I not only become a life-long E.B. White fan, but he influenced me (and by implied determinism, Montaigne influenced me) to move to Maine after reading his collection, One Man’s Meat. Maine changed my life. And so it goes on, the influence.

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In both Eastern and Western ancient culture, wisdom represents the culmination of all virtue. Montaigne presents himself in a likewise manner to me. In all of literature (and history, and philosophy, and psychology…well, you get the picture), Montaigne represents the culmination of all that is of enduring value. “If others examined themselves attentively, as I do,” he wrote, “they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself.” And for that I am grateful.

My cousin Neal.

In Death, Family, Memoir, Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 23, 2018 at 8:00 am

I am an only child. Growing up, my cousins, Neal and Diane, were the closest I had to siblings. Like a lot of families who are spread out, our lives intersected only occasionally after we grew up and had families of our own. Then a few years ago, as Carole and I were traversing the country, we had the opportunity to see more of them and their spouses. For instance, this past October Carole and I stopped and visited while heading east from Colorado. It was a wonderful visit, with much laughter and love. A couple of weeks after we left Neal was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. He died last week. I spoke with him shortly after the diagnosis. He was in good spirits and told me that he was accepting the hand he’d been dealt. I wrote him a note shortly after. In his memory, I share it with you below.

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Dear Neal ~ I want to tell you a story. I might have told you this before, so please excuse me if I’m repeating myself.

The story goes back many many years to my 8th birthday. As you know I was born in early October and I remember the day being crisp with a clear-blue sky. You probably remember my best friends, Rick and Jeff Erickson. It was my birthday and I was walking across my backyard to their house when out of nowhere the following question presented itself: If I die tomorrow, would my life have been well spent? Over the years I’ve shared this incident with many people. They often look at me askance and say something like, My what an odd little boy you must have been! Of course you may laugh and nod your head in agreement. Regardless, that moment changed the course of my life. Consequently, I have spent much of my life thinking about what a well-lived life should like. I want you to know the part you’ve played in helping me answer that question.

When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life I think of a life of principal, a life of patience, and kindness, and steadfastness. It is a modest life, devoted to enduring values. A life built on virtue. When I reflect upon the proper well-lived life, I think of you. You stand tall, in my opinion, as a model of the proper life. You are devoted to family, and have a wide circle of friends. You seem to have herculean patience and tolerance. I’ve never known you to utter a cross or mean-spirited word. You laugh easily. You pursue excellence and have demonstrated the courage of going your own way, following your own vision and scheme of things. Most of us aspire to be a better person. It is a project for us, a work in process. You on the other hand simply are a better person. It seems to come naturally for you. Like all masters, you make something difficult appear easy. You have a grace in that way and I greatly admire it.

One of my hero philosophers said that the length or brevity of a life is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. What is important, however, is how the life is lived. Is it a life devoted to the good, to, “a life of virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness?” You have walked the walk, as they say. That is, you’ve shown me, and those around you, what these attributes look like in real-life practice, and I am forever indebted to you for that.

Thank you and with love,

Your cousin.

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A closing comment. Neal responded to my note as I expected, with quiet modesty, writing, “I’ve always tried to do what mom and dad instilled in us and I guess over time it just became my nature.” I encourage you to write to someone you love and tell them what they mean to you.

 

Pay Attention

In Happiness, Philosophy, The Examined Life on December 16, 2018 at 8:00 am

My experience is what I agree to attend to.” ~ William James

I’ve been spending more time that usual paying attention. Specifically paying attention to what I pay attention to. You see, like everyone, I’m feeling the acceleration of time. It comes this way to us all, that speeding train called life. It chugs along, toiling uphill, then, clearing the pass, it starts the decent. Faster and faster. But I’ve found the brakes. I’ve discovered that if you get focused and pay deep attention, time slows down. You can’t stop the train, but you can slow the descent. Time–the more attention you give it, the more of itself it reveals.

James Wilson Williams is a technology scholar. In the current issue of New Philosopher magazine he is quoted as saying that when you “pay attention,” you pay “with all the things you could have attended to but didn’t; all the possibilities you didn’t pursue…all the possible yous you could have been, had you attended to those other things. Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.” By paying attention to one thing, you have made a conscious decision to ignore something else, principally the past and the future. And that has great rewards. As Goethe said, “Happiness looks neither forward nor backward.” Indeed, the present is the only reality that belongs to us.

That is the good news, that we’re paying attention to something. The bad news is that if we aren’t careful, if we don’t pay attention, and then, zip, with a blink of an eye, it’s gone. An opportunity for happiness lost, a moment–an eternity–squandered. The train picks up speed.

When we were little the world was fresh, new, interesting. We were captivated by it, struck by simply being alive. It was a raw, cosmic happiness. But as we age, the days connect, they go rolling by, one after the other. Tedium builds. We’re on the train, just staring out the window. We’ve seen it all before. Maybe we day-dream, more likely we turn to social media. Either way, we’ve lost the discipline of attention. It is the present foregone. We’re on the train to oblivion.

I’ve discovered a way of slowing things down again, somewhat like it all was when I was a little child.

I credit my meditation practice with much of the slow freshness I feel when I move about the world. It is curious how sitting quietly and paying attention to your mind will instill in you a calm when going about the hustle and bustle of life. But there are other things I practice too to slow things down and pay attention. I am right-handed, for instance, but I frequently use my left hand for common tasks like eating or brushing my teeth. In doing this, I am turning a mundane task into something requiring my attention. Time slows down accordingly. Or, sometimes when I’m traveling a common route, a road I might drive several times a week, I pretend to have a passenger, someone from another country, often a distant relative. I point out this or that to my passenger. I try to see the route through their eyes. It makes it fresh again and new, delivering a degree of child-like happiness along with it. Try it.

In his book, Philosophy as a Way of Life, Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault, Pierre Hadot writes, “Because the sage lives within his consciousness of the world, the world is constantly present to him [or her]…the present moment takes on an infinite value: it contains with it the entire cosmos, and all the value and wealth of being.”

Pay attention. Be a sage. Therein lies happiness.