Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

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.

Reading and New Travels

In Books, Creativity, Dogs, Reading, Travel on June 5, 2014 at 6:00 am
Injured Lucy

Injured Lucy

Lucy and I have resumed our morning walks after several months of doing without. Last Fall, during a walk, she limped out of the woods, her shoulder lacerated, obviously the result of running into something. Despite two operations we could not get the gash closed and had no option but to wait it out. We applied raw honey to the wound, kept it clean, didn’t let her run and so forth. Eventually she healed. We are back to our schedule but she is considerably more cautious, and avoids that part of the woods. I keep a closer eye on her as well.

A morning walk has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Now that I’m back at it I have a greater appreciation of the benefits to starting my day in this fashion. It is likely not a coincidence that, after resuming the routine, I am writing this and that I wrote a post last week about, indeed, the morning walk. The creative benefits of walking are well documented. “I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks—who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering….” wrote Thoreau. I have no genius for anything, but if I did, having it for the art of sauntering would be welcome.

* * *

Daily Rituals, How Artists Work

Daily Rituals, How Artists Work

We leave this evening for Europe: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Tallinn, St. Petersburg. Sixteen days. Whereas Carole has been concentrating on which clothes to pack, I have been thinking about what books to bring. This disparity does not frustrate either of us.  After 35 years there are no surprises and few tensions. I am bringing Lily King‘s new novel,  Euphoria.  There is no compliment of activities like a good novel married to new travels. But feeling decidedly in need of self improvement, I’m bringing along a book my friend Thatcher recommended, Daily Rituals, How Artists Work. Opening randomly, I find the chapter on Sartre, “‘One can be very fertile without having to work too much,’ Sartre once said. ‘Three hours in the morning, three hours in the evening. This is my only rule.'” Continuing the march to be a better self, I’m also bringing along Alain De Botton‘s, How Proust Can Change Your Life. (Jacket blurb from the NY Times: “A self-help manual for the intelligent person.”) I like to travel with books and feel no guilt about taking time to read them while on the road. (Indeed, I find guilt to be a generally useless and tiresome emotion and rarely invest in it.) Reading a book while in a foreign country, like seeing a movie with subtitles, enhances the experience. Thinking on Thoreau above, the ability to consistently “enhance experience” is a genius I aspire to.

Da Capo

In Books, Creativity, Philosophy, Reading, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers, Writers on March 20, 2013 at 6:00 am

The  neuro-chemical thing has worn off and all is again right with the world. That said, it’s a good time to take a little break, a few days away from the desk. The reading is falling behind, the reservoir is low, and the battery needs a trickle charge. So, today I’m putting up a previous post (from 2010) and am taking a breather for a few days. You must be getting tired of me, anyway, knowing as I do, how tedious I can (so easily) become. See you soon.

______________________________________

“There is properly no history; only biography” ~ Emerson

My first choice of reading material is often biography. The biography holds everything: entertainment, knowledge, history, story-telling, insight, and possibly even wisdom. As best I can recall, the first biography I ever read was Mark Twain, though now that I think about it, I believe it was his autobiography, the genre-cousin of biography. I was in elementary school and I recall that it took a very long time to complete–I’m a slow reader. It was a big book written for grown-ups. And I wasn’t–grown-up, that is. I remember I had to write a book report and my teacher checked everyday on my progress, the book being thick and me being slow, and the report not coming when due, and the pressure, oh the pressure…

Young's Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

Young’s Biography, Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography

As an adult I am still a slow reader and still a reader who loves biography. So it was that I saved up my pennies and sprang for the first new book (“new”: not a used book, or a library sale book, or a freebie review book) in quite some time: Friedrich Nietzsche, A Philosophical Biography by Julian Young. Young is Professor of Philosophy, University of Auckland, and the book is published by Cambridge University Press. I was turned onto it by a glowing review by Francis Fukuyam in the New York Times Book Review.  Fukuyam includes this line:

“Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him.”

I have always been fascinated by this enigmatic thinker. Here’s how the biography opens:

“Nietzsche’s greatest inspiration, he believed, was the idea that if one is in a state of perfect mental health one should be able to survey one’s entire life and then, rising ecstatically to one’s feet, shout ‘Da capo!–Once more! Once More! Back to the beginning!–to ‘the whole play and performance’. In perfect health one would ‘crave nothing more fervently’ than the ‘eternal return’ of one’s life throughout infinite time–not the expurgated version with the bad bits left out, but exactly the same life, down to the very last detail, however painful or shameful.”

This idea stops me cold.

Sunday Repost: …the american dog tick…

In Books, Dogs, Nature, Reading, Travel on March 10, 2013 at 5:00 am
Yuck. The American Deer Tick

Yuck. The Tick

According to the University of Maine web site, there are three types of ticks found in Maine: the deer tick, the american dog tick and the brown dog tick. I looked it up. I was curious, having just pulled five ticks off of my body. Those are the ones I found before the shower, discovered under my clothes. I found at least as many on my clothes before leaving the trail. I pulled I don’t know how many off Maggie. It was a lot.

Neighbors Mike and Wendy invited me on a hike this morning. Carole is out of town and I think they felt sorry for me. I’ll take a little pity for company every so often, so I opted in. They brought their dogs and off we went. It wasn’t a difficult hike, flat along a tributary of the Fore River, through the woods. We passed a small white pine grove and I stopped to inhale deeply. I told Mike and Wendy that one of my favorite things in all the world is the smell of pine in Maine. That is not an exaggeration.

There are about 50 miles of trails in Portland, developed and maintained by the non-profit Portland Trails organization. That is an admirable endeavor. I use the trails frequently and as I write this I realize that I have not supported the organization. I will rectify that immediately. I won’t even hold them responsible for the tick infestation of this morning.

* * *

I got Lyme Disease a few years ago. Tick bite. Carole and I were in Spain, had rented a car and planned on a few weeks of

Gilbraulter

Gibraltar

exploring the country. We’d made our way down to Gibraltar–yes, I know, not properly part of Spain–and I wasn’t feeling particularly well. But I wasn’t so sick as to miss my morning run, however, and headed off toward the southern point of the peninsula. Looking across the Strait of Gibraltar, I could not but think of the history that had passed through that narrow stretch of water. I thought of Nelson getting shot at the Battle of Trafalgar, his body stuffed into a brandy cask, and returned to Britain. “Hardy,” Nelson said, kneeling, then falling onto the deck, “I do believe they have done it at last… my backbone is shot through.” I thought of the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, the Greeks and the Minoans, all sailing this straight, toying with the unknown vastness on the other side. The sun was coming up across the water, orange light rising on the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. I had to walk back to our hotel. I didn’t know it at the time, but I’d come abroad incubating a case of Lyme Disease.

We canceled our adventure and drove to Benalmádena, on the coast. We found a cheap room on the beach, a place with a cabana. The only book I had with me was the Library of America edition of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, including Last of the Mohicans. I don’t remember how long we stayed. I recall sleeping a great deal under the thatched cabana roof, the warm breeze, and the breaking waves. I recall, waking and reading Cooper, then nodding off again–repeat. I read all the Leatherstocking Tales on that beach in Spain. I also experienced my only migraine, though I don’t think there is any correlation.

Lyme disease can best be detected by a tick bite that manifests a rash, usually as a ring around the bite, though I don’t remember any such rash. They say a tick can go a year without a blood meal. I think that is especially interesting, though the words blood meal make me uneasy.

Writers on Reading

In Books, Literature, Reading, Writers, Writing on February 25, 2013 at 6:00 am

It strikes me as cheap and lazy to happen across a page of quotes, a quote being the fastest exit on the highway such that you don’t have to drive any longer. Despite my distrust of the quote, I enjoy reading them. And, yes, I plug them in with abandon, being if nothing else, too often cheap and lazy. Montaigne said somewhere that he includes a quote in his work because someone said previously better what he stuggles to say now. Or something like that, I should look up it.

So, given reading as a subject, a worthy subject we often consider here at “…the house…“, I have transcribed below quotes on the subject from those who know it best, writers. I hope you enjoy.

Truman Capote:

I have a passion for newspapers…read all the New York dailies every day, and the Sunday editions of several foreign magazines too. The ones I don’t buy I read standing at the newstands. I average about five books a week…the normal length novel takes me about two hours. I enjoy thrillers and would like someday to write one. Though I prefer first-rate fiction, for the last few years my reading seems to have been concentrated on letters and journals and biographies.

John Barth:

The great guides were the books I discovered in the Johns Hopkins Library, where my student job was to file books away. One was more or less encouraged to take a cart of books and go back into the stacks and not come out for seven or eight hours. So I read what I was filing. My great teachers (the best thing that can happen to a writer) were Schederazade, Homer, Virgil, and Boccaccio; also the great Sanskrit taletellers. I was impressed forever with the width as well as the depth of literature–just what a kid from the sticks, from the swamp, in my case, needed.

John Dos Passos:

[Hemingway] and I used to read the Bible to each other. He began it. We read separate little scenes. From Kings, Chronicles. We didn’t make anything out of it–the reading–but Ernest at that time talked a lot about style. He was crazy about Stephen Crane’s The Blue HotelIt affected him very much. I was very much taken with him. He took me around to Gertrude Stein’s. I wasn’t quite at home there. A Buddha sitting up there, surveying us. Ernest was much less noisy then than he was in later life. He felt such people were instructive.

Gabriel García Márquez:

One night [at college] a friend lent me a book of short stories by Franz Kafka. I went bck to the pension where I was staying and began to read The Metamorphosis. The first line almost knocked me off the bed, I was so surprised. The first line reads, “As Gregor Samsa awoke that morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect….” When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn’t know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories.

Susan Sontag:

Well, literature does educate us about life. I wouldn’t be the person I am, I wouldn’t understand what I understand, were it not for certain books. I’m thinking of the great question of nineteenth-century Russian literature: how should one live? A novel worth reading is an education of the heart. It enlarges your sense of human possibility, of what human nature is, of what happens in the world. It’s a creator of inwardness.

Katherine Anne Porter:

All the old houses that I knew when I was a child were full of books, bought generation after generation by members of the family. Everyone was literate as a matter of course. Nobody told you to read this or not to read that. It was there to read, and we read. I grew up in a sort of mélange. I was reading Shakespeare’s sonnets when I was thirteen years old, and I’m perfectly certain that they made the most profound impression upon me of anything I every read….We had a very good library of–well, you might say secular philosophers. I was incredibly influenced by Montaigne when I was very young. And one day when I was about fourteen, my father led me up to a great big line of books and said, “Why don’t you read this? It’ll knock some of the nonsense out of you!” It happened to be the entire set of Voltaire’s philosophical dictionary with notes by Smollett. And I plowed through it; it took me about five years.

E.B. White:

I was never a voracious reader and, in fact, have done little reading in my life. There are too many other things I would rather do than read….It is a matter of some embarrassment to me that I have never read Joyce and a dozen other writers who have changed the face of literature. But there you are. I picked up Ulysses the other evening, when my eye lit on it, and gave it a go. I stayed with it only for about twenty minutes, then was off and away. It takes more than a genius to keep me reading a book.

Don DeLillo:

When I was eighteen, I got a summer job as a play-ground attendant–a parkie. And I was told to wear a white T-shirt and brown pants and brown shoes and a whistle around my neck–which they provided, the whistle. But I never acquired the rest of the outfit. I wrote blue jeans and checkered shirts and kept the whistle in my picket and just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen. And this is where I read Faulker, As I Lay Dying and Light in August. And got paid for it. And then James Joyce, and it was through Joyce that I learned to see something in language that carried a radiance, something that made me feel the beauty and fervor of words, the sense that a word has a life and a history. And I’d look at a sentence in Ulysses or in Moby Dick or in Hemingway–maybe I hadn’t gotten to Ulysses at that point, it was Portrait of the Artistbut certainly Hemingway and the water that was clear and swiftly moving and the way the troops went marching down the road and raised dust that powdered the leaves of the trees. All this in a playground in the Bronx.

Thanks for reading.

d

On My Mind

In Books, Life, Memoir, Reading, The Examined Life on February 15, 2013 at 6:00 am

A few odds & ends, things I’ve been contemplating recently:

I read about 50 books a year. I am 57. Let’s say I live another 30 years. That’s: 30 x 50 = 1500. Fifteen hundred books in front of me, given the assumptions. That’s a focus I need to get my head around.

* * *

There are 196 countries in the world. To the best of my recollection, I’ve been to about thirty-five of them. That’s about 18%. I would like more, but am satisfied. Fifty seems a nice round number, though. If wanderlust is your thing, you might want to check out The Art of Non-Conformity, Unconventional Strategies for Life, Work, and Travel. I met Chris, the unassuming force behind The Art of Non-Conformity, here in Portland a year or two ago as he was passing through on a book tour. He’s on country 193.

* * *

I’m a baby boomer. I was raised in a Mad Men world of: More, Bigger, Faster. That hasn’t worked out all that well. The future is: Less, Smaller, Slower. Not everyone agrees with my assessment and that’s fine. Eventually, however, more people rather than less must embrace the future mantra, Less, Smaller, Slower, or there will be no future to experience–or rather, no species to experience it. This is a hard thing and I worry we’ll not pull it off.  Wm. James:

“The world may be saved, on condition that its parts shall do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.”

There is a blog I follow, Zen Habits, that might be of interest if you want to think more on a Less, Smaller, Slower lifestyle.

* * *

Alan Watts writes that the Zen mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything but absorbs nothing. This image has dogged me since I first encountered it. It seems much of what remains difficult, in politics, in business, in life, is the result of that which has been absorbed–what the Buddha called attachment. What is the cost-value ratio of that which we have “absorbed?”

* * *

Dostoyevsky wrote: “You must know that there is nothing higher and stronger and more wholesome and good for life in the future than some good memory, especially a memory of childhood, of home…” Our recent snow storm prompted memories of my fondest childhood experiences: towering snow drifts, King of the Hill battles atop snow mountains, bundled neighborhood friends. I said recently that, as a species, we have no calling to a natal stream, no return to a territory; yet, perhaps the territory of memory is our blessing-curse natal shadowland. There is comfort there, but like a strong drug, memory over-use is addictive and ultimately debilitating.

* * *

The world remains a wonderful–and wonderous–place. There is not so much effort required to make this observation, though it does not come freely. I subscribe to a modest discipline to maintain this perspective: “Develop your legitimate strangeness,” said poet, René Char. The world would rather we not take this course and remain with the herd. You know my thoughts on this.

Thanks for reading and your continued interest in “…the house I live in….”