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.

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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.

The action of no action.

In Memoir, The Examined Life, Travel, Uncategorized, Wisdom on February 11, 2017 at 1:20 pm

We’d been camping in the Laguna Mountains for a few days and had the place to ourselves. We had no internet and no cell coverage. Our days were lazy and we filled them with books, walks, and the occasional nap. Breaking the habit of connectivity is difficult and a thing probably best experienced only when forced on you. Like many habits, it takes time to break the back of it but is worth it if you can manage. I spent a good bit of time photographing the Acorn Woodpecker. Sibley says to “Note clownish face pattern, red crown…” and so on. Clownish indeed, with a bold yellow cheek, a bright eye ring, and a white forehead patch. They were in abundance in the field in front of us, a field of less than a dozen trees, half of which were dead.

I took a biology class in college, the final project of which was to write a report of long-term observation on a patch of ground we’d chosen, a spit of earth three feet square. We had to log so many hours–I don’t recall exactly how many–and share what we observed. The project taught me many things, all of them unexpected, the greatest of which was the power of simply being still. Being still is not a thing we often experience, nor does it warrant much currency in modern society. Yet the simple action of no action can be quite something, boarding on profound even.

There was perhaps an hour before the sun would set behind the ridge. (A fist held to the horizon represents about an hour, two fists between horizon and the sun and you’re looking at about two hours before sunset.) Once the sun disappeared the temperatures dropped and darkness spread across the valley faster than you could out walk it–at lease it seemed that way. I had been standing for perhaps an hour, not moving. I focused on the birds and attempted to better hear the sounds surrounding me. I concentrated on simply being still and observing. Once years ago while meditating in a woods, seated on a stump, a white-tail deer approached, sniffing the air curiously, nostrils flaring. Closer and closer she drew, then, with a shift of wind, she leaped as if suddenly released by gravity and bolted off across a meadow. When you sit in a forest things happen. On this afternoon, camera resting on my tripod in front of me, my hearing turned ever so effortlessly into listening. It is a subtle difference, hearing and listening, and I cannot say when it directly turned. You can’t really pinpoint such a thing. There was a chirping in the tree in front of me. It had been there but I’d not listened to it. I lifted my eyes and from a bore-hole the head of a fledgling appeared. It looked around, up and down, then hopped from the hole to a branch. Suddenly mom and dad woodpecker dropped from the sky screaming. They reprimanded the youngster and ushered him back into the nest. I could only imagine the discussion over dinner that night.

Despite my well documented appreciation of Thoreau and his fellow Transcendentalists, I have never been able to truly nurture an appreciation for things metaphysical, spiritual, or transcendental. Yet, as I grow older and as my stubbornness yields to experience, I find peace in considering such things. There is no conclusion to draw from that, other than the lesson of stillness and the woodpecker.

 

Waiting for my work to begin.

In Uncategorized on August 20, 2016 at 8:22 pm

It is reported that the last words of John Stuart Mill were, “My work is done.” I have a minor obsession regarding last words. Perhaps, if there is to be a summary of one’s life, it is  best captured in the last words, assuming the dying is cogent and a degree of ambition still evident. As I mentioned elsewhere, Hegel’s last words were, “Only one man understood me and he didn’t understand me.” And Henry Thoreau’s were, “Moose…Indian.” My advice to the dying is: Know what you’re going to say before you expire. We’re interested.

Mill’s utterance, “My work is done” crossed my radar this week. It came on the heels of a friend making the comment, “If you wrote a book, I’d read it.” You cannot imagine the import of these two phrases colliding as they did in space and time. I expressed appreciation to my friend and told him that growing up I was under the self-inflicted impression that I was to be a writer. I said this and smiled, shrugging my shoulders, as if to say, Oh well. But inside, I wanted to cry out, “Do Over!” Not that I would be up for a trade or a barter. I have loved the life I’ve lived (so far), the family, the marriage, the travel, books read, people met, and so on. But if I could have more that would be good. Greed is not an emotion I’m susceptible to, except when it falls into the category of living: let me live more, larger, richer, deeper. (Note, I didn’t say, Let me live longer.)

At this place in life I am still waiting, as silly as it sounds, to Mill’s point, waiting for my work to begin. When is that going to commence, I wonder? Soon is good, later not so much. And what if it doesn’t come? Herein lies the problem: It is not a thing that is self-starting. It is not a thermostat that will kick in when some pre-set trigger is pulled. It is, to be vague about it, a thing that one must begin with effort and discipline and purpose. Waiting for Godot is still waiting, yet Beckett wrote the play. And still I wait.
What exactly is my work? What am I waiting for? Good questions. Good questions without good responses. “Let us do something, while we have the chance,” writes Beckett in Godot. Indeed, let us do something.

2012 in review

In Uncategorized on December 30, 2012 at 5:02 pm

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 23,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 5 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.

So Long. See ya.

In Uncategorized on December 25, 2011 at 3:00 pm

I’ve run my course here. It’s been ten years, give or take, of writing this blog (and the one preceding it). Lots of good stuff, lots of less than good stuff here. Regardless, I’m ready to close the door to this little workshop. It’s the end of the year, a good time to tidy things up. Thanks for reading, for the comments and the support. It’s been a good run.

Happy trails!

 

Odds and Ends…

In Creativity, The infinity of ideas, Uncategorized, Writers on October 20, 2010 at 9:18 am

Observed on the corner of Fore and Exchange: An older woman leaning into a younger woman. The older woman asks, “Are you going to return the ring?” The young woman relies: “Hell no. I’m putting it on eBay.”

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Graffiti spotted on the Eastern Prom: “Got a thought?” And in that vein, I love the scene early in the movie, The Social Network, where Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg) sits down at the desk in his dorm room and says to himself, “I need an idea.”

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Moleskine note: an idea has no meaning until you do something with it.

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Quote of Roland Barthes: “What literature is: that I cannot read without pain, without choking on truth.”

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Factoid: On average, every two weeks one of the world’s recorded 7000 languages becomes extinct.

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Darwin did not write “survival of the strongest.” He wrote of the “survival of the most adaptable.”

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Quote, The New York Times: “We have surrendered our independence to a technology we cannot master.”

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And lastly, please consider my review of the new biography of Montaigne, How to Live, linked here (MostelyFictiondotcom).