Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Henry David Thoreau

My ten creative books #2: The Importance of Living

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Note: I’m counting down ten books that have influenced the way that I think about the creative process, in order of the publication dates of their first editions. It’s a very personal list that reflects my own tastes and idiosyncrasies, and I’m always looking for new recommendations. You can find the earlier installments here.

When Lin Yutang died in 1976, his obituary in the New York Times naturally described him as “an interpreter to Western minds of the customs, aspirations, fears and thoughts of his people and their country, China, the great and tragic land.” But what strikes me the most now about his masterpiece, The Importance of Living, is how little of it seems specifically Chinese, and how quickly its vision of life came to seem like an anachronism. Here, for example, is Lin on the figure of “the scamp,” which he holds up as his ideal of human life:

My faith in human dignity consists in the belief that man is the greatest scamp on earth. Human dignity must be associated with the idea of a scamp and not with that of an obedient, disciplined, and regimented soldier. The scamp is probably the most glorious type of human being, as the soldier is the lowest type, according to this conception…In this present age of threats to democracy and individual liberty, probably only the scamp and the spirit of the scamp alone will save us from becoming lost as serially numbered units in the masses of disciplined, obedient, regimented, and uniformed coolies. The scamp will be the last and most formidable enemy of dictatorships. He will be the champion of human dignity and individual freedom, and will be the last to be conquered. All modern civilization depends entirely upon him.

These lines, which appeared in 1937, acquired a sadly ironic undertone almost from the moment of their first publication. Yet the book was always less about China than about the author himself. Like most interpreters and intermediaries between cultures, Lin was never particularly comfortable in either world, and like Thoreau and the other sages whom he cites, he was an outlier even in the society that he was supposedly introducing to the West.

And what remains is still the best handbook that I’ve ever found for living a sane, balanced life as a member of the creative class, regardless of one’s background. If you only have time to read part of it, I’d recommend the section “Who Can Best Enjoy Life?”, which I seem to revisit every year. Lin opens with a consideration of right living, and after considering the merits of the Taoist and Confucian points of view, he concludes with an unforgettable endorsement of the life embodied by Zisi, which Lin calls “the philosophy of half-and half”:

Those are the best cynics who are half-cynics…It is that spirit of sweet reasonableness, arriving at a perfect balance between action and inaction, shown in the ideal of a man living in half-fame and semi-obscurity; half-lazily active and half-actively lazy; not so poor that he cannot pay his rent, and not so rich that he doesn’t have to work a little or couldn’t wish to have slightly more to help his friends; who plays the piano, but only well enough for his most intimate friends to hear, and chiefly to please himself; who collects, but just enough to load his mantelpiece; who reads, but not too hard; learns a lot but does not become a specialist; writes, but has his correspondence to the Times half of the time rejected and half of the time published—in short, it is that ideal of middle-class life which I believe to be the sanest ideal of life ever discovered by the Chinese.

Few people of any country have ever managed to put this into practice, and Lin passes over the important point that one only arrives at it after a long struggle to achieve something more. Those who aim for it are likely to miss it entirely—but this doesn’t make it any less true. And when we think of those in power today, and of the moral compromises that they continue to make, Lin’s final admonition feels more resonant than ever: “A half Lindbergh would be better, because more happy, than a complete Lindbergh. I am quite sure Lindbergh would be much happier if he had flown only halfway across the Atlantic.”

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July 31, 2018 at 9:00 am

Quote of the Day

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It may seem to some that through the use of chance operations I run counter to the spirit of Thoreau…The fifth paragraph of Walden speaks against blind obedience to a blundering oracle. However, chance operations are not mysterious sources of “the right answers.” They are a means of locating a single one among a multiplicity of answers, and, at the same time, of freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concerns for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience, whether that be outside or inside.

John Cage, “Lecture on the Weather”

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June 15, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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Something about working with one’s hands conduces to aphorism: some correlation between the manipulable unit, grasped, lifted, and the mind’s intermittent concentrations…The quotabilities of a Franklin or a Thoreau are suspended amid connections they do not state, in the silent mental continuum of a man setting type, building a cabin, hoeing beans.

Hugh Kenner, Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller

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June 8, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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He is not a true man of science who does not bring some sympathy to his studies, and expect to learn something by behavior as well as by application. It is childish to rest in the discovery of mere coincidences, or of partial and extraneous laws…The fact which interests us most is the life of the naturalist. The purest science is still biographical. Nothing will dignify and elevate science while it is sundered so wholly from the moral life of its devotee, and he professes another religion than it teaches, and worships at a foreign shrine. Anciently the faith of a philosopher was identical with his system, or, in other words, his view of the universe.

Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers

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February 1, 2018 at 7:30 am

Quote of the Day

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[The] spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

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March 30, 2017 at 7:30 am

“Let us play…”

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Will Durant

Happiness is the free play of the instincts, and so is youth. For the majority of us it is the only period of life in which we live; most men of forty are but a reminiscence, the burnt-out ashes of what was once a flame. The tragedy of life is that it gives us wisdom only when it has stolen youth. Si jeunesse savait, et vieillesse pouvait—”If youth knew how, and old age could!”

Health lies in action, and so it graces youth. To be busy is the secret of grace, and half the secret of content. Let us ask the gods not for possessions, but for things to do; happiness is in making things rather than in consuming them. In Utopia, said Thoreau, each would build his own home; and then song would come back to the heart of man, as it comes to the bird when it builds its nest. If we cannot build our homes, we can at least walk and throw and run; and we should never be so old as merely to watch games instead of playing them. Let us play is as good as Let us pray, and the results are more assured.

Will Durant, Fallen Leaves

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November 26, 2015 at 7:30 am

My great books #5: The Complete Walker

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The Complete Walker III by Colin Fletcher

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

The other day, I mentioned my recurrent fantasy of selling my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with a backpack. For all the usual boring reasons, I never came close to doing it for real, and curiously enough, aside from a few minor exceptions, I was never even inspired to do the next best thing—I’ve never been a backpacker or hiker. This is despite the fact that Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker is probably the nonfiction book I’ve reread more frequently than any other. (There are several editions, all of which have their charms, but the one I’d recommend that you read for your own pleasure is the third, since it’s the longest and most comprehensive version that Fletcher wrote on his own.) Unlike certain other critics, I love the “Economy” chapter of Thoreau’s Walden precisely because it’s so fussily specific: Thoreau devotes so much attention to the balance sheet and homely practicalities of his little experiment that you’re almost convinced that you could do it yourself. Fletcher’s book has much the same appeal: it’s basically an encyclopedic survey of the subject of backpacking, particularly of the equipment involved, and after you’ve read one of his exhaustive treatments of packs, flashlights, or space blankets, you may not be ready to set off on your own, but you’ve been furnished with ample material for dreams.

The more I revisit The Complete Walker—and I seem to go through the whole thing, piece by piece, every couple of years or so—the more it strikes me as a genuine but unsung literary masterpiece, a model of clarity, wit, readability, and good humor. Fletcher worries here and there that his focus on the “how-to” comes at the expense of the “feel-how,” but the pages in which he attempts to directly evoke the delights of walking itself, which is inherently impossible, are rather less poetic and interesting than his finicky weighting of the merits of various brands of camping stoves, which I could read forever. And I often think of what Fletcher says after considering the arguments of those who say that you should never go backpacking alone:

But if you judge safety to be the paramount consideration in life you should never, under any circumstances, go on long hikes alone. Don’t take short hikes alone either—or, for that matter, go anywhere alone. And avoid at all costs such foolhardy activities as driving, falling in love or inhaling air that is almost certainly riddled with deadly germs. Wear wool next to the skin. Insure every good and chattel you possess against every conceivable contingency the future might bring, even if the premiums half-cripple the present. Never cross an intersection against a red light, even when you can see that all roads are clear for miles. And never, of course, explore the guts of an idea that seems as if it might threaten one of your more cherished beliefs. In your wisdom you will probably live to a ripe old age. But you may discover, just before you die, that you have been dead for a long, long time.

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November 6, 2015 at 9:00 am

My great books #3: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

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Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Note: I’m counting down my ten favorite works of nonfiction, in order of the publication dates of their first editions, and with an emphasis on books that deserve a wider readership. You can find the earlier installments here.

Like many young people of a certain disposition, I used to entertain a fantasy of giving away my possessions, leaving home, and traveling the world with nothing but what I could comfortably carry on my back. These days, that dream seems very remote: if nothing else, having children makes it much harder to justify. And even when I was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” as E.B. White tartly characterized the ideal reader of Thoreau, there was one big barrier in my way: I couldn’t bear to leave all my books behind. If nothing else, though, I’ve always known which book I’d take with me if I were limited to just one: Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth. Most readers might not recognize the title, but this little book has a lot to recommend it. My tattered paperback copy is small enough to fit into even the tiniest backpack. Along with so much else, it’s the most interesting anthology of poetry and prose, both eastern and western, that I’ve ever encountered. It’s a mine of insights and ideas that never cease to reward contemplation, no matter how many times we’ve studied them before. And of all the books I’ve read, it comes closest to expressing my own philosophy of life, which has less to do with Zen itself than with the quirky, peculiar amalgam that Blyth offers us here. His version of Zen has sometimes been called “limited,” but it’s less interesting as an objective exposition of existing doctrines than as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices.

R.H. Blyth himself was a fascinating figure, an Englishman who went to Japan before the war and never left, and whose work was largely responsible for introducing haiku to the west. Zen in English Literature is his masterpiece, an eccentric, sometimes ornery series of meditations backed by the poems of Bashō and the plays of Shakespeare. I don’t always agree with his aesthetic pronouncements—he despises Coleridge, whom I adore, and I’ve never been able to work up his degree of enthusiasm for Wordsworth—but the conclusions that he draws from the evidence are constantly rattling around in my brain. (His discussion of voluntary poverty, for instance, is the best I’ve ever found: Blyth describes it as “a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.”) It was one of the few books I brought with me on a recent visit to see my dying grandfather, and Blyth’s words on death and loss, while not exactly consoling, are indispensable. In the very last lines of the book, he quotes Macduff, who asks, after discovering that his entire family has been murdered: “Did heaven look on, / And would not take their part?” Blyth concludes:

What is the answer to the question? It cannot be given in Yes, or No, because as the question is understood by most people, it has the same form as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” But you may say, “You are only equivocating: answer the question, does Heaven care for us or not?” The answer is the plays of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, for when we are watching or reading the plays, and even for a short time afterwards, before the glow has died away, we know the answer. But it is not Yes, and it is not No.

On Walden Pond

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Henry David Thoreau

Henry David Thoreau is a public menace, and he needs to be stopped. That’s the impression, at least, that we get from the critic Kathryn Schulz’s puzzling essay in a recent issue of The New Yorker, a savage takedown with no apparent news angle aside from the author’s determination to bury, not praise, Thoreau. Schulz tackles the task with relish, pointing out that “the real Thoreau was, in the fullest sense of the word, self-obsessed: narcissistic, fanatical about self-control, adamant that he required nothing beyond himself to understand and thrive in the world.” Let’s set aside the point, for now, that literary masterpieces in any genre aren’t likely to emerge from any other kind of personality: Walden, Schulz writes, is the work of a misanthrope “whose deepest desire and signature act was to turn his back on the rest of us.” The article’s attitude toward Thoreau’s antisocial tendencies is indignant, even strident, and it’s even stranger when we realize that it occupies the same prominent position in the same magazine—and was presumably the product of the same editorial process—as Jonathan Franzen’s equally baffling essay on climate change, in which he more or less advised the rest of us to resign ourselves to a “human catastrophe” to make room for more deserving species. And I can’t help but feel that Schulz has chosen a peculiar target for her rage, at a time when Thoreau, for all his flaws, stands as a necessary counterexample to the unsustainable impulses that surround us on every side.

I could tell that I was going to be out of phase with Schulz almost from the beginning, when she refers to the opening chapter of Walden, “Economy,” as “one of the highest barriers to entry in the Western canon: dry, sententious, condescending, more than eighty pages long.” I’ve always found it riveting—it’s possibly the most heavily underlined section in any book I own—and I revisit it on a regular basis, while I rarely feel the need to reread Thoreau’s nature writing, which Schulz likes. But there are other early warning signs that we shouldn’t expect a fair hearing. Schulz dismisses Thoreau’s commitment to the abolitionist movement, including his work as a conductor on the underground railroad, in a single paragraph, and she concludes: “But one may reach good ends by bad means.” (If history has taught us anything, isn’t it that we need to be more concerned about the opposite?) “His moral clarity about abolition,” Schulz writes, “stemmed less from compassion or a commitment to equality than from the fact that slavery so blatantly violated his belief in self-governance.” Yet that abstract conviction led him to take positions and actions at considerable risk to his own safety, while the “compassion” of so many others, then as now, resulted in nothing more than moral self-congratulation at a comfortable remove. Walden, Schulz says, is “a fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people,” but in practice, it resulted in a greater sense of obligation and responsibility than many of the social and economic platitudes with which we surround ourselves today.

Marker for Thoreau's cabin

Which isn’t to say that Thoreau isn’t a deeply problematic figure. The core of Schulz’s position is familiar, and basically correct: Walden is a work of imaginative literature, not reportage, since Thoreau wasn’t nearly as removed from civilization as he claimed to be, and he wasn’t able to stick for long to the mode of living that he pressed on his readers. Schulz concludes: “So perhaps a sufficient argument against Thoreau is that, although he never admitted it, the life he prescribed was not an option even for him.” (There’s also the fact that even contemplating such a retreat is a luxury afforded to very few. E.B. White’s famous quip that Thoreau wrote as if “all his readers were male, unmarried, and well-connected” carries more weight than Schulz’s essay does in its entirety.) But this also misses the point. “His behavioral prescriptions are so foolishly inconsistent as to defy all attempts at reconciliation, while his moral sensibility is so foolishly consistent as to be naive and cruel,” Schulz writes, but this is a charge that can be leveled, with just as much reason, at other moral exemplars who have manifestly asked for the impossible. Walden is less like a practical handbook than what the Jesus Seminar calls a case parody, an admonition so exaggerated—like “Turn the other cheek”—that it exists only to shock us out of our old assumptions. A more reasoned approach, of the kind that Schulz would evidently prefer, would have had about as much impact as such arguments usually do, which is to say none. Thoreau overcorrects toward an extreme vision of simplicity because so much of America, both in his time and in ours, skews just as strongly in the other direction.

And it’s only through a conversation between extremes that we get at the kind of reasonable middle ground that Schulz finds acceptable. Thoreau wrote that even owning a doormat might mean succumbing to a kind of materialist temptation, of which Schulz says: “Only those with no sense of balance must live in so much fear of the slippery slope.” But this misunderstands how balance arises in the first place. The kind of moderation that Schulz—and I—see as the best way of living doesn’t emerge from aiming constantly at the midpoint: it’s an averaging out of extremes, a pragmatic slalom that allows for a play of competing forces that otherwise would shake themselves apart. (In fact, the best defense of Schulz’s essay is that its shrill attack on Thoreau might be the corrective we need to get at a more realistic portrait, which doesn’t make it any more convincing on its own.) “Restrictions and repudiations can just as easily complicate one’s life,” Schulz writes, as if this were a flaw in Thoreau’s argument, when in fact he belongs to a long tradition of ascetics who recognize that strict rules of simplicity, requiring constant vigilance, are the only way to generate the right kind of complexity. “The hypocrisy,” Schulz says, “is that Thoreau lived a complicated life but pretended to live a simple one.” Yet I don’t think the reader comes away from Walden with any impression other than that of a man of enormous inward complexity enabled by the outward constraints on which he maddeningly insisted. Thoreau’s example, even if it was inherently unattainable, points the way forward. In the words of the man who owned the land on which that cabin was built: “We aim above the mark to hit the mark.”

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October 21, 2015 at 9:41 am

The Ian Malcolm rule

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Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park

A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Last week, at the inaugural town hall meeting at Facebook headquarters, one brave questioner managed to cut through the noise and press Mark Zuckerberg on the one issue that really matters: what’s the deal with that gray shirt he always wears? Zuckerberg replied:

I really want to clear my life to make it so I have to make as few decisions as possible about anything except best how to serve this community…I’m in this really lucky position where I get to wake up every day and help serve more than a billion people. And I feel like I’m not doing my job if I spend any of my energy on things that are silly or frivolous about my life…So even though it kind of sounds silly—that that’s my reason for wearing a gray t-shirt every day—it also is true.

There’s a surprising amount to unpack here, starting with the fact, as Allison P. Davis of New York Magazine points out, that it’s considerably easier for a young white male to always wear the same clothes than a woman in the same situation. It’s also worth noting that wearing the exact same shirt each day turns simplicity into a kind of ostentation: there are ways of minimizing the amount of time you spend thinking about your wardrobe without calling attention to it so insistently.

Of course, Zuckerberg is only the latest in a long line of high-achieving nerds who insist, rightly or wrongly, that they have more important things to think about than what they’re going to wear. There’s more than an echo here of the dozens of black Issey Miyake turtlenecks that were stacked in Steve Jobs’s closet, and in the article linked above, Vanessa Friedman of The New York Times also notes that Zuckerberg sounds a little like Obama, who told Michael Lewis in Vanity Fair: “You’ll see I wear only gray or blue suits. I’m trying to pare down decisions. I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing. Because I have too many other decisions to make.” Even Christopher Nolan gets into the act, as we learn in the recent New York Times Magazine profile by Gideon Lewis-Kraus:

Nolan’s own look accords with his strict regimen of optimal resource allocation and flexibility: He long ago decided it was a waste of energy to choose anew what to wear each day, and the clubbable but muted uniform on which he settled splits the difference between the demands of an executive suite and a tundra. The ensemble is smart with a hint of frowzy, a dark, narrow-lapeled jacket over a blue dress shirt with a lightly fraying collar, plus durable black trousers over scuffed, sensible shoes.

Mark Zuckerberg

If you were to draw a family tree between all these monochromatic Vulcans, you’d find that, consciously or not, they’re all echoing their common patron saint, Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, who says:

In any case, I wear only two colors, black and gray…These colors are appropriate for any occasion…and they go well together, should I mistakenly put on a pair of gray socks with my black trousers…I find it liberating. I believe my life has value, and I don’t want to waste it thinking about clothing.

As Malcolm speaks, Crichton writes, “Ellie was staring at him, her mouth open”—apparently stunned into silence, as all women would be, at this display of superhuman rationality. And while it’s easy to make fun of it, I’m basically one of those guys. I eat the same breakfast and lunch every day; my daily uniform of polo shirt, jeans, and New Balance sneakers rarely, if ever, changes; and I’ve had the same haircut for the last eighteen years. If pressed, I’d probably offer a rationale more or less identical to the ones given above. As a writer, I’m called upon to solve a series of agonizingly specific problems each time I sit down at my desk, so the less headspace I devote to everything else, the better.

Which is all well and good. But it’s also easy to confuse the externals with their underlying intention. The world, or at least the Bay Area, is full of young guys with the Zuckerberg look, but it doesn’t matter how little time you spend getting dressed if you aren’t mindfully reallocating the time you save, or extending the principle beyond the closet. The most eloquent defense of minimizing extraneous thinking was mounted by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, who writes:

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copy-books and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them. Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle—they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments.

Whitehead isn’t talking about his shirts here; he’s talking about the Arabic number system, a form of “good notation” that frees the mind to think about more complicated problems. Which only reminds us that the shirts you wear won’t make you more effective if you aren’t being equally thoughtful about the decisions that really count. Otherwise, they’re only an excuse for laziness or indifference, which is just as contagious as efficiency. And it often comes to us as a wolf in nerd’s clothing.

Four ways of looking at simplicity

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Carlos Castaneda

A man of knowledge needed frugality because the majority of the obligatory acts [for acquiring knowledge] dealt with instances or with elements that were either outside the boundaries of ordinary everyday life, or were not customary in ordinary activity, and the man who had to act in accordance with them needed an extraordinary effort every time he took action. It was implicit that one could have been capable of such an extraordinary effort only by being frugal with every other activity that did not deal directly with such predetermined actions.

Carlos Castaneda, The Teachings of Don Juan

Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor. The ancient philosophers, Chinese, Hindoo, Persian, and Greek, were a class than which none has been poorer in outward riches, none so rich in inward. We know not much about them. It is remarkable that we know so much of them as we do. The same is true of the more modern reformers and benefactors of their race. None can be an impartial or wise observer of human life but from the vantage ground of what we should call voluntary poverty.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Stewart Brand

Personally I don’t like the term [voluntary simplicity]…I’m more comfortable with the idea of “right livelihood,” which is one of the folds of the Buddhist Eightfold Path to enlightenment. It’s less of an exhortation than an observation—greedy behavior makes a sour life. The idealism of “Voluntary Simplicity” is okay I suppose, but it obscures what I find far more interesting—the sheer practicality of the exercise.

Stewart Brand, The Next Whole Earth Catalog

Sometimes the inculcation of poverty may be a concession to human weakness, which finds the golden mean so difficult. Poverty then appears as a kind of universal Prohibition. Confucius says rightly,

I know why men do not walk in the Way: the clever go beyond it, the stupid do not reach to it. I know why men do not understand the Way: the virtuous exceed it, the vicious fall below it.

But actually the sweetness and light of the Way of the Mean comes from complete, absolute poverty, for as Milton says in Samson Agonistes,

What boots it at one gate to make defense,
And at another let in the foe?

Poverty appears again as a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.

R.H. Blyth, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

Quote of the Day

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February 25, 2014 at 7:30 am

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What’s a minimalist book lover to do?

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Zen Hoarder by Mark Thompson

Every few months, I’ll get the urge to radically simplify. The house where I live is comfortable but modest, and I don’t feel as if my possessions are taking over my life, but I often wonder if I could take it even further. Thoreau’s example is the most famous, of course, but I also find myself thinking of the poet Chomei, who at the age of sixty built a house on Mt. Hino that was ten feet by ten, with no furniture except a small shrine, a desk, a bed of straw, some musical instruments, and a few volumes of poetry and music. As Chomei writes:

In such a place there is no need to keep the commandments, for there is no temptation to break them.

I feel a similar sort of longing whenever I see pictures of someone’s tiny house, or when I browse the photo galleries at the Minimalism forum on Reddit, in which the striving to reduce one’s life to its bare essence—which often seems to consist of a bike, a laptop, and a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—turns into a perverse kind of competition to show off the least number of belongings. (Reading many of the posts there, I’m reminded of the good sense of E.B. White, who pointed out that a life like Thoreau’s is much easier when you’re “male, unmarried, and well-connected.”)

Like most people, I use travel as an excuse to temporarily pretend that I’m the person I’d like to be all the time. I’ve always been a homebody at heart, but I did a fair amount of traveling in my twenties, and I took a lot of pride in packing light. A few days after I quit my job in New York to pursue my dream of becoming a writer, I was on a plane to India with nothing but a daypack, which was enough to see me through three weeks of train and bus travel from Mumbai to Karnataka to Goa. A few years later, I did the same on a three-week trip to Europe, which led to some suspicious questions from customs on the way home—apparently a single male going from Ireland to Italy to London with an Eagle Creek backpack and a shoulder bag has to be up to no good. These days, with a baby in tow, I can’t even get on the subway without a Sherpa load of equipment. But I still daydream about lighting out for the territory with little more than I can carry in the smallest backpack I own.

Walden Pond

But it isn’t going to happen, either at home or abroad, and it’s all because of the books. Since I don’t much care for the Kindle, for my trip to India, I took no fewer than five books—Shantaram, A Son of the Circus, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, the nonfiction book Evidence of Harm, and a travel guide—and found myself obliged to lighten my load along the way: I deliberately abandoned Shantaram on the airplane, which was no great loss, and left A Son of the Circus on the end table of my tiny hotel room in Bangalore. For my trip to Europe, I brought a volume of the essays of Montaigne, cut into two pieces for easier handling, along with Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon and some paperback novels. I also tend to acquire additional books on the road. During my trip to London to do location work for City of Exiles, I scavenged stores for local true crime books, which I thought would come in handy for research, and came home with a bag that was bursting at the seams. If, as Colin Fletcher says, a pack is a house on your back, then mine seems fated to end up looking a lot like my library at home.

In short, I’ll never be as minimal as I should be, as much as I like to dream about the books I’d own if, like Chomei, I only had a single shelf. And that’s probably for the best. As much as I like looking at tiny houses, they always strike me as a little sad and incomplete without books, and I know that if I built myself a cottage, it would soon be packed with thrift store paperbacks. My life seems fated to be as cluttered as my brain, and even as I try to pare things down in other ways, I’ll never be able to give up my book addiction. It’s possible that these impulses are two sides of the same coin: the more books I read, the more I learn to value those few works of lasting value, even as my eye strays to the newest enticing discovery. And if the whole point of simple living is to allow for a complicated inner life, in my case, it’s inseparable from a bookshelf that’s the opposite of minimal. The result is a life that oscillates back and forth between simplicity and clutter. I may never be a true minimalist, but simplifying my life in the few ways I can lets me spend more time with the books I love.

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May 23, 2013 at 9:52 am

Books as furniture

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The author's library

I’ve always been fascinated by the prospect of buying books by the foot. The Strand, my favorite bookstore in New York, offers a number of packages for consumers looking to furnish a library as quickly as possible, ranging from four hundred dollars per foot for antique leather editions to slightly less for cookbooks, art books, or legal volumes. The intended purchasers seem to be theatrical designers or, more often, interior decorators furnishing a different kind of set, a stage on which clients can buy the appearance of being voracious readers without going through the trouble of acquiring books one by one. And although it’s generally more economical—if less efficient—for me to get my books at retail, rather than wholesale, I’ve occasionally been tempted to order a few yards of reading material, just to see what serendipitous finds I’d discover there.

Recently, I read a post on Apartment Therapy in defense of organizing books by color, which seems to be an ongoing trend in interior design, or at least on home decorating blogs. It’s controversial, I think, because displaying a shelf of blue, red, or yellow books emphasizes their decorative function to an extent that makes us uncomfortable: not only have these books been judged by their covers, but even the words on the spine aren’t particularly important. The article makes some good points—it can be helpful for visual thinkers, it allows us to appreciate books for their visual qualities as well as for their content—but it won’t stop many serious readers from having a visceral negative reaction. For many of us, it parades the use of books as furniture a little too blatantly: it just doesn’t feel like a working library, however often the owner might pull a favorite green or teal volume from the shelf. And the idea of choosing books solely because of how they’ll look seems disrespectful to the authors whose life’s work they represent.

The author's library

Yet when I consider it more rationally, my instinctive response seems a little overblown. I’ll often organize books by size, for instance, on the theory that a row of bindings of the same height looks better than an irregular skyline of mismatched volumes. And while I’ve never bought a book solely because of how it would look in my collection, I can’t rule out that this might be a subconscious factor in some purchases. I doubt I’ll ever make it all the way through William Vollmann’s unabridged seven-volume version of Rising Up and Rising Down, but I look at it with pleasure every day. The Great Books of the Western World set, which has followed me to every dorm room, apartment, and house since college, was originally acquired because I really intended to read all those books, but these days, it tends to serve the function for which many of its original buyers probably intended it—as a classy decorative note in an office or study. (The same thing, alas, seems to be happening with my Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, and even my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.)

But above all, I get a visceral pleasure from looking at the books in my library that can’t be explained by utility alone. Books are furniture, but they’re also the best furniture there is: when I’m sitting among my books, I feel more human, more alive, and more content. Of course, that’s mostly because my bookshelf is also a tangible autobiography. Every book I own represents a choice, or a moment in my life; I can often remember when and where each one was bought, or the interests it reflected at the time. As a result, my library is a reflection of my brain—a way for me to set up a desk and reading chair in my own skull—and it means more to me than it can to anyone else, which is something you can’t buy by the foot. As Thoreau said:

Not that all architectural ornament is to be neglected even in the rudest periods; but let our houses first be lined with beauty, where they come in contact with our lives, like the tenement of the shellfish, and not overlaid with it.

And even if you buy a book for the sake of its color, if there are readers in the house, they’ll find it. So there’s no shame in buying books as furniture—it’s the best way there is to cover a wall.

Better late than never: On the Road

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I’m not sure how I managed to avoid On the Road for more than thirty years. Part of it, I suppose, was the sense that I was already too old for it. The music critic Dorian Lynskey includes it along with Tropic of Cancer and The Magus on a list of books you should read before you’re eighteen or not at all, and he’s probably right. As a result, my knowledge of Kerouac never went beyond 10,000 Maniacs and “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Yet I knew I had to confront this book one day. Its central question, as its admirers love to remind us, is how to live, and when you’ve decided to write for a living, this isn’t just an abstract philosophical question, but a matter of urgent survival. On a practical level, I’m interested in any serious attempt to lay out the rules of the game. And when I picked up On the Road at last, I was genuinely curious to see what Kerouac had to teach me.

And what I discovered, unfortunately, is that I’m no longer convinced by the vision of life that On the Road represents. It begins promisingly, with Sal’s epic journey from New York to San Francisco, but founders on the figure of Dean Moriarty, presented to us initially as a reckless romantic, but who is really a monster of selfishness and, ultimately, a bore. The central figures are feckless car thieves, pickpockets, and shoplifters who leave a string of broken relationships—and abandoned children—in their headlong rush across the country. There’s a lot of talk about freedom and the embrace of the unknown, but never a moment in which anyone takes the ultimate risk of real human connection that demands any kind of personal sacrifice. The strongest emotion is Sal’s momentary infatuation with a beautiful prostitute at a Mexican brothel, but before long, we’re on the road again, leaving her to live a life that we suspect is far more interesting that those of the men we’ve been following.

And yet On the Road contains moments that shine with beauty, insight, and truth. There’s a scene in which Sal and Dean end up in an all-night movie theater in Detroit and end up repeatedly watching Background to Danger with George Raft, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, until the movie takes up permanent residence in Sal’s brain:

We saw them waking, we heard them sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated completely with the strange Great Myth of the West and the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came. All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.

Kerouac is getting at something crucial here about how Hollywood and mass culture can shape our inner lives, and I wish he’d followed up on the hint, just as I wish we knew more about the insipid “mystery programs” that Marylou plays on the radio as they drive through the darkness of Texas.

What On the Road finally presents is a very limited version of life and its possibilities, and although Sal seems to acknowledge this by the end, I doubt that this is the message that the novel’s fans have taken away from it. It isn’t a model for the life of art, but a cautionary tale. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t worth reading, or even worth living for a time. Any book on how to live is necessarily constrained: Thoreau only lived at Walden Pond for two years, as a sort of contained experiment before moving on to a more conventional life, even as the traces of the sojourn still lingered. And what Kerouac gives us is a chronicle of the journey that every thinking person has to pass through on the way to something else, like the countless mistakes that Proust reminds us lie on the path to wisdom. In the end, Dean is still on the road, while Sal, like all writers, decides to settle for something more ordinary that will allow him to tell Dean’s story. And that’s where the true adventure begins.

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2012 at 10:32 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

August 6, 2012 at 7:30 am

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The starving author’s guide to money

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[The] spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“Money,” as Malcolm Cowley said, “is the central problem of a young writer’s life, or of his staying alive.” In particular, the lack of money is generally the central problem of most writers’ lives, at least in the years it takes to establish anything resembling a career. Even more frustrating is the fact, confirmed by my own experience, that it’s incredibly hard to produce a publishable novel if you aren’t writing full-time. This contradiction, between the reality of present financial constraints and the dream of being able to write six or more hours a day, is one that nearly every writer has faced. And it’s no exaggeration to say that every financial decision you make, from the moment you first decide to write for a living, needs to be directed toward establishing a life where that kind of freedom is possible. Because money is really just a proxy for more important things, like freedom, flexibility, and time.

The first, essential step, then, is to scale one’s life to the appropriate level, which is easier for some than for others. E.B. White pointed out that Thoreau’s great experiment was only possible for someone who was “male, unmarried, and well-connected,” and this remains true today: if you’re single and in your early twenties, it’s going to be easier for you to simplify your life than if you’re married with a couple of kids. But any life can benefit from some degree of simplification, and voluntary simplicity—or even what used to be called, less fashionably, voluntary poverty—remains the best position from which to embark upon a writing career. These days, simplicity has been variously defined, sometimes in incongruously complicated ways, but for an artist, it merely involves giving up some comfort in exchange for freedom and time. And time, more than anything else, is what a writer needs.

Of course, the specifics of simplifying one’s life will vary radically from person to person. For me, in the years leading up to my decision to quit my job, it meant relocating from Manhattan to Brooklyn, scaling back on luxuries like new books, and, above all, in saving. This isn’t the place for a detailed lecture on frugality or investing—for that, I’d recommend Ernest Callenbach’s Living Cheaply With Style and the sage advice on—but it’s worth noting that budgets generally don’t work as well as an automatic savings plan: you increase the percentage that you put into savings, even if it’s a small amount at first, and learn to live with a reduced income each month. Make it unconscious, with a portion of each month’s paycheck deposited directly into a savings account before you can touch it, and structure your life around the remainder. Andrew Tobias put it best, in The Only Investment Guide You’ll Ever Need:

There is someone in the world making 10% less than you who is not ragged and homeless. Live like him.

The immediate objective, then, while working toward the larger goal of writing for a living, is to pay down debt and create a cushion of savings to weather the inherent uncertainty of a writer’s life. Dean Koontz has advised writers to have a cushion of at least six to nine months’ personal expenses before attempting to write full-time, but I personally think that the number is much higher—at least a year, maybe more. That may seem like an insurmountable amount at a time when the average savings rate in the United States is 4.5%, but it’s much easier when you’ve scaled back your expenses beforehand. Spiritual considerations aside, on a purely practical level, a simple external life is more likely to grant you the kind of internal life that you need. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Small moves over a period of years are more effective than a sudden plunge into the unknown. And when the time comes to take that final step, you’ll be ready.

Disclaimer: I’m not a financial professional. This advice is for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as advice specific to your situation. (If Thoreau were alive today, his publisher would make him say the same thing.)

Written by nevalalee

October 18, 2011 at 10:17 am

A word of advice from Thoreau

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I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings. In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.

Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Written by nevalalee

May 14, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 18, 2011 at 7:58 am

Making an end

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Yesterday, I wrote briefly about movies with great closing lines, of which there are surprisingly few. The last lines of books present the opposite problem: there are almost too many to choose from. The last line of a novel is almost always of interest, and just a glance at the American Book Review’s list of the hundred best closing lines (available as a PDF here) is a reminder of how many great ones there are, and how hard it is to reach any kind of consensus.

I hope you don’t mind, then, if my own choices are pointedly personal and idiosyncratic. My favorite closing line from any novel—which, oddly enough, didn’t even make the longer list of the American Book Review’s nominees—is probably from John Updike’s Rabbit Redux, in which Harry Angstrom, after a few bewildering months on his own, finds himself back in bed with his estranged wife:

He. She. Sleeps. O.K.?

It’s a little hard to appreciate out of context, but that final “O.K.?”—with its strangely moving terminal question mark—sometimes strikes me as the best thing Updike ever wrote. It rather astonishingly manages to evoke the radio transmissions of the moon landing (whose repeated uses of a taciturn “O.K.” run throughout the novel), the ending of Ulysses, and the rhythm of the final lines of Updike’s own Rabbit, Run: “…he runs. Ah: runs. Runs.”

And here are a few more personal favorites, from works of nonfiction as well as novels, that didn’t make the American Book Review’s list. From The Phantom Tollbooth:

“Well, I would like to make another trip,” he said, jumping to his feet; “but I really don’t know when I’ll have the time. There’s just so much to do right here.”

From The Corrections:

She was seventy-five and she was going to make some changes in her life.

From T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom:

When Feisal had gone, I made to Allenby the last (and also I think the first) request I ever made him for myself—leave to go away. For a while he would not have it; but I reasoned, reminding him of his year-old promise, and pointing out how much easier the New Law would be if my spur were absent from the people. In the end he agreed; and then at once I knew how much I was sorry.

From Walden:

The light which puts out our eyes is darkness to us. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Of course, even the greatest closing line loses much of its power when taken out of context. Tomorrow, I’m going to be talking about the endings of novels, and how it feels, at least for one novelist, to approach that final moment.

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