Doug Bruns

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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.

* * *

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.

Corners of My Mind

In Religion, Writers, Writing on February 26, 2013 at 6:00 am

It was supposed to snow last night. I was to wake to half a foot of powder. Instead it rained all night. Mud Season is officially upon us here in Maine. Eliot was close. April might be cruel, but February sucks.

* * *

“A line is a single dot set in motion.” I don’t know who said this, but given to metaphor as I am, I think it is weighted with meaning to be extracted. It doesn’t require a lot of effort to suggest that life, a single dot, can either remain as a period on the page, or can be drawn across it, stretched to the margins. Experience the line, set the dot in motion.

* * *

“I have learned to seek my happiness by limiting my desires, rather than in attempting to satisfy them.” That’s John Stuart Mill. I recall reading somewhere that as a young man trained as a classicist, Mill developed the ability to write Greek with his right hand while simultaneously writing Latin with his left–or perhaps other way around. No matter. Fitzgerald said the superior mind is one in which two opposing thoughts can be held at the same time. Mill obviously slam-dunks that observation. I said in a previous post that Peter Matthiessen is on record as expressing his life-long goal to not necessarily simplify his life, but to simplify his self. Mill and Matthiessen, two provocative ways of saying the same thing.

* * *

It is said that all the great religions are born in the desert. Deserts are thirsty places. There is madness in the sands and perhaps madness is a stop on the highway to the divine. I’d add that the mountains too, have a potency. If I were a religious man I’d seek my guru above tree-line. But I am a woodsman and only pagans fill their spirits among the pines and oaks. “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived,” said my guru.

* * *

I recently finished George Saunders’s The Tenth of December. Earlier in the year, the New York Time’s Magazine sported a front cover declaring, “George Saunders just wrote the best book you’ll read this year.”  There is no better PR a writer could wish for. I found Saunders on Facebook and “friended” him. I wrote, “I just finished The Tenth of December. It is like dancing through a field by moonlight only to realize at dawn that the field is mined.” He accepted my friend request and thanked me for the comment, calling it apt. I find it equally refreshing, remarkable, and revelatory that a writer of his stature has a Facebook presence. Have we turned a corner?

Here’s a short clip from Saunders’s recent visit with Charlie Rose:

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Thanks for reading. I don’t say often enough how much I appreciate your support.


Road-Trip Thoughts

In Death, Dogs, Happiness, Nature, Travel on June 26, 2012 at 6:00 am

Road-Trip Action

Road-trip thinking is the anthesis of distraction. Long-distance driving delivers you to a place of somnambulated stability that invites the mind to run wild. I observed this firsthand last week on our road trip through New Brunswick. Here are a few of the wild-running notions that skittered across the highway of my brain.

  • I should try to act more manly. I think people are inclined to take you (more) seriously if they deem you manly. For example, among writers, who do you take more seriously, James Thurber or Ernest Hemingway? See? I decide to resolve this by smiling less frequently. (I don’t know how this works for women. Women have too many challenges as it is. I don’t know how they do it.)
  • My favorite animal is the North American painted turtle. Its rudderless house on its back, affording complete flexibility and mobility, it’s apparent aimlessness–all qualities I admire. It is a simple animal, self-contained in its rambling and curious elegance.
  • What is the thought from Peter Matthiessen I just read? His life-long goal is not to simplify his life necessarily, but to simplify his self.
  • Of my good and dear friend Stuart, who just got a lab report from a biopsy: “It’s not good,” he said. We all die, so why is it so difficult when we know we are dying? I don’t know, but it is.

The thinking is interrupted as I see an object in the road and, too late, rush over it, recognizing it to be a bird. In my rear-view mirror I see it pulled by the vacuum of our truck and tumble like a wind-blown leaf. I pull over. It is a yellow-rumped warbler, just a little fleck of an animal. It is alive and blinks at me. Their bones are hollow and in my hand it seems to weigh less than air. I walk to the brim and place it in the tall side grass. Continuing on:

  • At camp last night, the dogs played like children. There is such joy to that, especially as the sun goes down and the fire is built.
  • When did I start sleeping in a tent? I used to sleep under the stars. Some things happen you simply can’t understand.

House a’fire

In Family, Life, Memoir, Thinkers, Travel, Writers, Writing on July 2, 2009 at 8:32 pm

The house is on fire. What would you grab as you run to the door?

The house is on fire. What would you grab as you run to the door?

I recently asked some friends what they would grab from their house if it was on fire and they had only three minutes to escape. This question has intrigued me for some time. I can’t remember when I first thought of it—or maybe it was put to me at a dinner party by a host desperate to get things rolling. Regardless, I am cu

rious about what people find important, and this question speaks directly to the issue. It is too, I confess, a self-serving question, as I am trying to figure out what is important to me and am hoping someone will help me down that path. Anyway, my friends on this afternoon answered typically. Of the four, three said they would grab the family photographs. The holdout said he’d reach for his guitar. Guitars aside, in my unscientific poll, most people say they would most miss their photographs if all their belongings were irretrievably lost.

 Many years ago, I bought a video camera. Of course, with my usual lack of marketplace acumen, I bought a Beta video recorder, not VHS, but that is beside the point. Our kids were little and I felt compelled to record their every moment. It is a phase through which many young parents pass, particularly those boomers raised on “Kodak Moment” pablum. I dutifully fulfilled my fatherly obligation to posterity, recording holidays and birthdays, snow-fort building and summer beach fun. But after a while, a year or two, I stopped cold. I had watched a series of tapes I’d recorded, the kids being particularly little and cute, and it struck me hard and fast: I don’t want to watch this when I am old and they are grown and gone. I sensed a dark nascent warning, a potential for a wet-blanket-smothering depression. These tapes would prove to be an undeniable visual reminder of that which I no longer possessed: my youth and my future. My imagination, in my future viewing, delivered me to death’s door, and certain of the tapes would undoubtedly transport me, Black Dog in chase, across the transom. It is an admittedly contrary viewpoint, probably profoundly irrational, and I will likely regret my decision. But I’m not going to take the chance. No, no more videos. If the house burns, the videos stay. Same for the photos. My memory, unaided by even a photograph, will have to serve, as it should, being that much more exacting for its fragility.

 I read recently a comment the critic Frank Kermode made regarding a collection of his work, the compilation of which forced him to make some difficult decisions. He wrote that he had to confront “what ought and what ought not to be let go.” Precisely—and that is the troubling challenge. What ought to be not let go? To direct Kermode’s challenge to the world of the tangible, What would I pull from the burning house? Though not for lack of effort, I can’t think of a damned thing, leaving me to fear that I exist in a sub-human state, as to be so lacking in sentimentality that no thing has emotional value. Sentiment aside, to plumb the human desire for possession, is there no thing so essential that I cannot live without it? Again, I come up empty handed. The easy answers are not worth risking my life in the burning house. I would want my cell phone, because my wife and children call me on it. I would want my laptop because that has everything–some would say, “my life”–on it. And I would want my current reading material because I am a reader first. But these are all things that help me do the important stuff—they are not the important stuff—and can be replaced.

They are nouns and I long for verbs, active verbs.

I have on occasion lived out of a backpack. There is a wonderful simple elegance in having everything one requires on one’s

Walden, Thoreau

Walden, Thoreau

back. The unfettered freedom is palatable, and it does not surprise me, given the layered complexity of modern life, that backpacking is the most popular and widely practiced of outdoor activities. It is a relic, an unfathomable connection to a time when we as a species freely roamed anywhere and everywhere, Africa to the Bearing Straight, our only possessions the ones we carried. (It is a compelling thought that we, as a species, have walked at some time or another virtually everywhere.) The only thing I recall from my first reading of Walden is Thoreau’s admonition to simplify. (From the second reading, getting to know Henry David better, I thought: What a wild man. He would have been a curious house guest, an experiment of his own making, a site to see.) Buddhist monks are sent into the world with only their robes and alms bowl. That is simplicity.

Unencumbered is the word. An old woodsman I once met out in the Uinta Mountains of Utah said he could not conceive how a person could wake up in the morning and not see mountains on the horizon. He was someone who knew what was not only important to him, but necessary. “A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to let alone,” wrote Thoreau. To be so compact and efficient, like a snail, or rather like my favorite amphibian, the common painted turtle, as to travel freely, wanting for nothing extraneous, is wildly releasing–and I think, close to an Absolute Truth, if such a thing existed. It is interesting that the painted turtle’s carapace is keelless, gaining her a range of motion subject to the least interference. The physicist and the code writer strive for the most elegant and simple equation or line. The architect and the draftsman seek elegance in an edge, a bend or radius that bespeaks simplicity in form. It is, I think, innately clarifying that life reflect the same principal. There is an entry in Camus’s notebook, not even a sentence: That wild longing for clarity.

 We have been educated, from Sunday school to Hollywood, that the prophets of old lived simply, by choice or divine edict, scratching out an existence, but living, at least in my imagination, a life of crystalline clarity. “The prophet is a fool, the man of spirit is mad,” wrote Hosea. I have visited the dusty expanse of the Middle East. There is good reason the desert breeds visionaries and madmen. Have we come very far? I am a struggling minimalist–they were beggars at the temple gate, voices in the wilderness. Mad fools, to paraphrase Hosea. The man who goes to the Seven Eleven for milk at night and turns up ten years later living on the other coast in another life is, I think, the most creative prophet imaginable—though likely a personal wreck. He starts over, creating a new self, like a snake shedding its skin, with the knowledge of the old, but free of it. I started a novel once whereby the protagonist walked away in the middle of a workday from a successful business, leaving a wild and brief note for his partner: “You’re in charge. I’m out of here.” He disappeared to everyone who knew him. Indeed, he walked right out of the novel and even I couldn’t find him.

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin

In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin

Though likely the story teller in him, Bruce Chatwin claimed to have telegraphed Magnus Linklater, his boss at the London Sunday Times, “GONE TO PATAGONIA FOR FOUR MONTHS.” I used to illogically figure that if I were ever imprisoned I would be forced to live a life of stark anti-materialism and simplicity. I would become a sequestered monk. It, prison, in this warped fantasy, sounded an odd and freeing experience, albeit a dark one–a place devoid of human vanities and illusions. There is nothing to pull from the burning house where there is no house in the first place. In a moment of introspection, Chatwin recorded this thought: “Do we not gaze coldly at our clutter and say, ‘If these objects express my personality, then I hate my personality.’”

 Nature strives to complexity. Organisms, like government, never evolve into smaller, more basic structures. To the contrary. That is the principal of evolution. To strive in the opposing direction, to simplicity, is counter to what our DNA is orchestrating behind the scene. Advertising, Madison Avenue and consumerism aside, this is biology. Perhaps we not only derive satisfaction from the material things that fill our lives, but are also fulfilling our genetic obligation to complexity. Of course this is metaphorical and not what nature had in mind. You will never see a migrating bird with a fanny pack.

 It has been an insidious journey from the backpacking days of my youth. Some time ago my wife, daughter and I went away for a three-day weekend to the lake. They packed a bag or two. I loaded my bike on the overhead carrier, put my fly-fishing gear in the back, along with photography equipment, books, laptop and trail guides. Clothing too. They looked at me, the great yapping minimalist, their eyes challenging. My wife was miffed, my daughter humored. I was embarrassed. I advise against revealing such duplicity in front of loved ones; years of hard-earned respect will be snatched away in instant. Of course I was troubled in that way only self-reflection can trouble one. We can be hardest on ourselves. How had I traveled so far? So began my quest to answer the question of what ought to be not let go.

 In reality, I am no longer worried by my lack of personal interest in possessions, which I believe suggests progress. I am no less human because I have no sentiment for things–in contradistinction, I think I am more so. Maybe our things can get in the way of our humanity. I do have many things still, far too many, but find comfort knowing that none are essential. I relish the freedom I sense upon returning from a donation collected of yet more purged stuff. To purge is clarifying and releasing. When I travel for short periods now I carry everything I need in a daypack. Two recent trips abroad found me managing fine with a simple carry-on. We are escaping the big house and moving to a place with less of a footprint, to use a modern and descriptive word. I struggle to resist consumerism, and have got rid of the big SUV for a small import. I know environmentalists applaud my efforts, and though that is a side benefit, my motives are largely to protect my personal environment–that is, to find clarity in simplicity, and if not find it readily, then carve it out. It took a long time to get to this place from which I must start again, only in reverse.

 The house is on fire. My family and Maggie the dog are safely outside. I am running through the burning rooms one last time, sirens in the background. I pick up nothing but speed, rushing freely and without burden to the open portal.