Life’s too short for boring books: Montaigne on why he’d rather be ignorant than read a boring book

In his 16th century essay on books, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne set down his opinions on various writers, philosophers and poets, and was surprisingly candid about not ‘getting’ some works regarded as great by the experts.

A few weeks ago I went along to the Sydney Writers Festival to see a panel of high profile journalists, writers and entertainers talk all things books; favourite book of the year, best section in the book shop, best film and theatre adaptations and so on.

The whole thing was entertaining and fun, but what I found most interesting was the conversation about the books they hadn’t read; the worthy tomes in unwrinkled jackets staring down from bookshelves in silent judgment.

It was a revelation to me that these intelligent, well read, well rounded individuals could have insecurities about books and authors they hadn’t read; that they could harbour secret fears they might not be smart enough to ‘get it’.

In his 16th century essay on books, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne set down his opinions on various writers, philosophers and poets, and was surprisingly candid about not ‘getting’ some works regarded as great by the experts. He didn’t seek to challenge the judgment of the experts, but rather to share his own reactions and tastes.

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Michel de Montaigne

In the essay, Montaigne tells us has no patience for Ovid; Cicero is long winded and very tedious. He even admits, with “sacrilegious boldness,” to finding the dialogues of Plato “dull and heavy” and laments “so much time lost by a man who had so many better things to say.”

He claims he doesn’t mind if people think he’s ignorant for holding these views because he doesn’t consider himself an expert anyway. His aim in reading is “to become more wise, not more learned or eloquent.”

Montaigne reminds us that life is short and should not be wasted on books we neither understand nor enjoy, and perhaps most importantly, not to waste energy worrying that we aren’t smart or educated enough if we cannot engage with certain books.

I seek in the reading of books only to please myself…. I do not bite my nails about the difficulties I meet with in my reading; after a charge or two, I give them over.

[…]

If one book does not please me, I take another.

Montaigne gives us proper philosophical backing not to force a book if it’s not enjoyable.

For some books it may be a matter of getting the timing right. The first time I attempted Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady it was slow and dense. When I reread it recently I found it different and was completely drawn in to Isabel’s world, perhaps because I can relate now to the themes of ambition, relationships, marriage, children etc.

The opposite is also true. As a teenager I found Wuthering Heights to be very moving and deep. Now it seems embarrassingly overwrought, though the language is beautiful as ever.

Other books just need to be given up altogether. For example, I have had to cut loose Oliver Twist after beginning and giving up so many times before.

Taking Montaigne’s lead, I will also admit that much as I enjoyed his essay on books, and also quite liked the ones on solitude and the inequalities between us, the language is generally difficult and I can’t get into most of them.

With him I say:

I could wish to have a more perfect knowledge of things, but I will not buy it so dear as it costs.

And so I’ve closed his book – no more Montaigne for me – and on to the next.

The beauty of living simply: the forgotten wisdom of William Morris

It could be the result of keeping an unreasonably tidy house while it was on the market, or moving into a terrace with no wardrobe; or it could be the mountains of things that attach themselves to my children. Whatever the cause, lately I have been in the grip of a decluttering frenzy. Continue reading “The beauty of living simply: the forgotten wisdom of William Morris”

The Alex Kidd complex: Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on living for the future

Living for the future is what our social system encourages: it promises ‘the good life’ and we work for its goals. This article considers how we can apply the concept of flow to improve our lives today.

As a child of the 80s, the first video game I ever played was Alex Kidd in Miracle World on Master System. I remember the wonder and joy of it, grappling with the controls to navigate Alex Kidd around his world.

Then, reaching what seemed to be the end, but which was actually the gateway to the next level, my mindset shifted: this was no longer a pleasant romp around Miracle World but an urgent quest to get to the end!

Like a lot of people these days, it seems, I often live as though life were a video game with the goals to get the furthest the fastest: Level 1 – School, Level 2 – University, Level 3 – Get a Job, Level 4 – Go for Promotion …

In playing this game, there is, to quote Eckhart Tolle, a tendency to be “so busy getting to the future that the present is reduced to a means of getting there.”

In the introduction to his great work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, eminent psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (say “chick sent me hi yi”) observes:

We grow up believing that what counts most in our lives is that which will occur in the future. Parents teach children that if they learn good habits now, they will be better off as adults. Teachers assure pupils that the boring classes will benefit them later, when the students are going to be looking for jobs.

The company vice president tells junior employees to have patience and work hard, because one of these days they will be promoted to the executive ranks. At the end of the long struggle for advancement, the golden years of retirement beckon ….

As people move through life, passing from the hopeful ignorance of youth into sobering adulthood, they sooner or later face an increasingly nagging question: “Is this all there is?”

Living for the future is what our social system encourages: it promises ‘the good life’ and we work for its goals.

We must, to an extent, accept this deal to function in society; to have somewhere to live, meet living expenses and participate meaningfully in the world.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

But, Csikszentmihalyi argues, to achieve a high quality of life, it is not necessary to put all one’s time and energy into conventional goals, what he calls ‘social controls’, such as climbing the career ladder, power, possessions, money and reputation.

Instead, what is required is the ability to find rewards in the events of each moment:

If a person learns to enjoy and find meaning in the ongoing stream of experience, in the process of living itself, the burden of social controls automatically falls from one’s shoulders ….

Instead of forever straining for the tantalising prize dangled just out of reach one begins to harness the genuine rewards of living.

He goes on to explain that the way to enjoy the process of living is to find more opportunities to enter into states of ‘flow’ – the feeling of being completely absorbed in an activity.

He summarises decades of research thus:

The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times—although such experiences can also be enjoyable, if we have worked hard to attain them. The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.

And so the goals of the game change, and now the challenge is to find my flow in miracle world.

A tale of two selves: Daniel Kahneman on the duality of self consciousness

Does the quality of our day to day experiences matter in the long run? Psychologist Daniel Kahneman considers this question in ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ where he distinguishes between the experiencing self and the remembering self.

On returning to work after my firstborn I remember relating to my (not very empathetic) boss at the time some minor worries over our new daycare arrangements: the constant illnesses, the tears and fears of separation, and knowing our bub was no longing enjoying the one-on-one care and attention he was used to.

As if helpfully trying to put things into perspective for me (while actually trying to extricate himself from the conversation) my then boss responded, “Ah well. They all turn out alright in the end, don’t they?”

It was a throwaway line, but it stayed with me, as it struck me as so odd: Do we really believe this? That the quality of a child’s – or anyone’s – experience day to day doesn’t really matter so long as things “turn out” alright in the end?

The eminent psychologist Daniel Kahneman considers this question in Part V of his book Thinking, Fast and Slow. Kahneman distinguishes between the ‘experiencing self’ and the ‘remembering self’:

The experiencing self is the one that answers the question: “Does it hurt now?” The remembering self is the one that answers the question: “How was it, on the whole?” It is the perspective we adopt as we think about our lives. Memories are all we get to keep from our experience of living, and the only perspective that we can adopt as we think about our lives is therefore that of the remembering self.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman’s research shows that we tend to make decisions for the benefit of the remembering self, while showing a surprising degree of apathy to the pains and pleasures of the experiencing self. He invites us to observe our attitude to our experiencing self using a thought experiment about an upcoming holiday.

How would this prospect affect your vacation plans? … At the end of the vacation, all pictures and videos will be destroyed. Furthermore you will swallow a potion that will wipe out all your memories of the vacation.

Kahneman reports that some choose to maximise pleasure by returning to a place where they had holidayed happily before. Others show a total disregard for their experiencing self, saying they would not bother to go at all.

I am firmly in the former camp, and even rather like the idea of this hypothetical amnesic holiday: with no pressure to create new memories (and the requisite social media evidence) there would be more space and time to actually relax and enjoy the moment.

Of course, the question of which self to live for has implications not just for the way we holiday, but for all the big and small decisions about family, career and how we spend our days.

It becomes most pressing when the choices that would optimise and prolong pleasure and enjoyment in the moment – you might even say ‘happiness’ – are not the same as the choices that create a good story or a meaningful life, the goal of the remembering self. I write more about that here.

If most people were to review their life choices in this light, rightly or wrongly, they would probably find it is their remembering self who is calling the shots.

Kahneman does not provide advice on the best way to live, but concludes simply:

Odd as it may seem, I am my remembering self, and my experiencing self, who does my living, is like a stranger to me.