Archives For: Book Club

Montaigne And Conservatism

Jul 29 2014 @ 1:20pm


A reader writes:

Andrew, you said in your appreciation of Montaigne:

Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism.

I am a lifelong liberal, perhaps for genetic reasons (as some recent studies have proposed), conservative-soulbut most certainly because conservatism in America has, as you say elsewhere in your piece, degenerated into reactionary, xenophobic, fundamentalist, hate-inspired lunacy. So, yes, I am a lifelong liberal (also because as a gay man, now in his seventies, the liberal left always seemed to me to be more favorably disposed to accepting me and our kind, though slowly and reluctantly.)

But I tell you, I heartily and wholeheartedly agree with your statement. So I guess I’m a conservative too, at least one of your kind. Can you confess that maybe you’re a liberal too? The progressive objection to the way of Montaigne?

I haven’t met a leftist ideologue who thought there were “true” solutions since the sixties. You, fighting leftist gays when you were arguing for gay marriage and they were for rejecting your “virtually normal” ideas, may have soured your views of the left, but believe me, there were millions throughout the country who just wanted their rights, to be as lawfully legitimate as our heterosexual brothers and sisters. And we have prevailed, spectacularly.

The key here, it seems to me, is understanding conservatism as a disposition rather than as a fixed ideology. That suggests, of course, that it might pragmatically express itself, at times, as a form of political liberalism as we understand it.

bookclub-beagle-trOne of the aha! moments I had in reading Oakeshott (who was deeply influenced by Montaigne) was when he actually described progressivism as an integral part of the Western conversation – one that a true conservative would not seek to extinguish, but rather respect and nurture. The genius of the modern European state was that it contained two core impulses – collective action and individual liberty – and the conservative mission was to find the right balance between them, at the right time, with a little preference for liberty.

That requires prudential judgment and a light, pragmatic touch. Oakeshott’s vision of the conservative politician was a “trimmer” – someone who trims the sails on a ship to exploit the current winds and weather. The point is merely to keep the ship afloat – not to reach the perfect desert island or to conquer distant lands, but for the sake of the coherence and steadiness of the whole. And when you look at Montaigne’s own political predilections, he fits smack dab in the middle of just such a disposition.

Bakewell, in How To Live, vividly brings to life the era of zeal and religious conflict that Montaigne lived in.

Read On

A reader adds to the other near-death experiences sparked by Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live:

I am 65 years old. In 1958, when I was 9, I suffered a ruptured appendix that was misdiagnosed as flu, so I lay in my bed for a week getting sicker and sicker until I was taken to Lankenau Hospital outside Philadelphia. They treated me with drugs for three days and then operated.

I have a number of memories from the three weeks I spent in the hospital but my near-death experience is still very close to me 55 years later. I, too, have a vivid memory of looking down on myself from up high, the minister at my right hand, and my already grieving parents on my left. I remember seeing a bright light and feeling a great sensation of peace and comfort surrounding me. Then my father kept shaking me. He kept saying “Wake up! Don’t go to sleep!” He pulled me back from that gate or passage I was about to enter.

I also have another vivid memory which I have kept from that time. While I was passing in and out of consciousness I had a dream that has stuck with me.

Read On

Readers continue the conversation over Sarah Bakewell’s How To Live:

Montaigne‘s near-death interval is very interesting – it makes me wonder how generalizable Dimethyltryptamine_27febhis description is to other peoples’ experiences. The pleasantness is an interesting surprise, because his physical behaviors manifest unpleasantness during this time. I can’t help but think of a friend of a friend, who, described the feeling accompanying beholding her newborn as “just like tripping on DMT.” There’s definitely some writing hypothesizing a connection between near death experience and DMT release; it does occur in some amounts in mammals. And it does seem that Montaigne‘s “out of body experience” allowed him to avoid the suffering associated with the experiences of the body at the time.

Another shares his own story:

What would someone 500 years ago, when people lived without indoor plumbing, have to say? And wouldn’t the writing be filled with difficult words, clumped together in long, montaigneflowery paragraph-free chunks? That’s what I thought, so before buying the book, I downloaded a sample and while reading it, remembered something I’d completely forgotten.

During sixth grade, I contracted Valley Fever. I was so sick for so long and nobody knew what was wrong with me. I found myself floating above myself, looking down, finally pain-free. I could hear the oldies (“These Boots Were Made For Walking”, “King of the Road”) playing on the radio that someone put beside my bed. But I simply let go and became more relaxed than anything I’d ever experienced in my uber-Protestant-work-ethic-running-around-in-circles-as-fast-as-you-can family. I knew I was close to death, but at eleven, what does that mean?

Montagne’s account of his own near-death experience brought this feeling back as if it were yesterday. The feeling of relief, of letting go, is beyond words, particularly when you are naturally tightly-wound. My adult kids hate it now when I tell them I look forward to death, as there is a peace you can never describe, and the opposite of competitive, hurry-hurry life trying to get ahead (of what?) in San Francisco. Fine, I tell them. They can join my parents in extreme FoxNews-like fear of death, which, when they talk about it, sounds more like they’re afraid of not controlling everything and everyone, and what will we do without that?bookclub-beagle-tr

Think I’ll share a little Montaigne, particularly the chapter entitled, “Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.” It’s about as far as you can get from our family’s Mission Statement (“what are you doing reading when you could be doing something?”).

The book is available here if you’d like to join in. Think of it as a blast of sixteenth century sanity for a crazy 21st century world.

Next up: was Montaigne a closet atheist? Or a very modern kind of Christian? Send your thoughts to I’ll weigh in – but check out this Mark Lilla essay first.

(GIF of Dimethyltryptamine, aka DMT, via Wiki)

Book Club: Good News About Dying

Jul 24 2014 @ 11:42am

A reader gushes:

I feel blindsided by joy and wonder reading Sarah Bakewell’s delightfully accessible book. I montaignehad no idea that this man from half a millennium past would give so many “that’s me” moments. Example: I’ve always felt that my forgetfulness was a plus. Something happens. I let go of it and it recedes to some far back place in my memory, unlikely to reappear. I’ve always referred to it as my Etch-A-Sketch mind. Lift up the plastic. All gone.

The other mindblower for me is allowing for doubt. This is a theme that has been mentioned many times in Dish posts. Its relevance in today’s world can not be overstated. Last year, I had a button-maker friend make me some “allow for doubt” buttons. I would notice many pitying looks when I wore it. I suppose nothing beats certainty.

This book club choice is a home run. It has expanded and reinforced my inquiry of life. Thank you.

A more reluctant fan:

I thought – essays? – on how to live? Heavy sigh. But I found the book at the library and decide that giving Montaigne a go probably wouldn’t kill me. I read the first chapter today while I sat at the pool during my daughter’s swimming lesson. It took me less than 15 minutes and I had time enough left to write a few pages.

It was a surprisingly light read. I was expecting tortured prose and deep, knee-bend navel gazing. But it was on death. An easy one and I was delighted to discover that Montaigne was a normal person for all his wandering in the mental back forty.bookclub-beagle-tr-2

I have been convinced for some time that dying – the actual moments – is not at all what it appears to be and doesn’t need to be prepped for in any specific way (unless that makes a person feel happy or better in some way, though Montaigne‘s suffering over it in his youthful years would seem to suggest otherwise). I feel not vindicated, but reassured, after this first chapter.

I have low expectations for this experience, but I am determined to read a chapter a day. I don’t think he is going to be my bestie in literary terms, but he has made a good first impression.

That struck me also as something that jumped out. Today, we live our lives in terror not simply of death but of dying. In fact, we seem more afraid of dying than death itself. And Montaigne insists this may not be necessary at all. Dying might actually be pleasant. And not because he had confidence in Jesus (although he did have a priest preside over his eventual death at the age of 59). It was because an early near-death experience gave him a whole new take on the subject. On the surface, he was knocked off his horse, lost consciousness, started puking blood and began tearing away at his doublet as if a great weight were on him. But on the inside, all was calm, even light:

It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go. It was an idea that was only floating on the surface of my soul, as delicate and feeble as all the rest, but in truth not only free from distress but mingled with that sweet feeling that people have who let themselves slide into sleep.

In this, as in everything, Montaigne seemed to trust his own nature, to let it be, to have confidence that, beneath the wandering flickers of our minds, something deeper endures, if only we can accept it. It’s that calm acceptance of what is, along with gladness for it, that makes Montaigne almost Taoist at times. P.M. Carpenter joins the conversation:

One non-political passage in Sullivan’s superb survey I identified with rather acutely:

If I were to single out one theme of Montaigne’s work that has stuck with me, it would be [his] staring of death in the face, early and often, and never flinching…. I was lucky in some ways – and obviously highly unlucky in others – that I experienced something like this early in my life as well: the prospect of my own imminent death and the loss of one of my closest friends and soulmates to AIDS. There was Scripture to salve it all; there was friendship to shoulder it all; there was hope to sustain it all. But in the end, I found myself returning to Montaigne’s solid sanity, his puzzlement and joy at life’s burdens and pleasures, his self-obsession that never somehow managed to become narcissism.

In my young and soulfully beautiful wife’s death I never found comfort in Scripture–“mysterious ways” my ass, she died young because we pour tons more cash into weaponry than cancer research–although in our daughter, hope does sustain me. She is my best and dearest friend and she’s as soulfully gorgeous as her mother. The prospect of my own imminent death disturbs me little; I already know its cause–years of self-destructive behavior. This seems only fair. I knew what I was doing and I proceeded to do more of it. I deserve what I get. My wife did not.

Read On

Book Club: A Guide To Living

Jul 22 2014 @ 1:19pm

The stroke of genius in Sarah Bakewell’s book about Montaigne is that she framed his biography as a guide to life. You could justify this as a way to appeal to a distracted 21st Century audience otherwise highly unlikely to read about a sixteenth century French essayist, but she makes that entirely unnecessary. What she shows is why Nietzsche had such a fondness for the diminutive and inquisitive skeptic: everything he wrote was really about his own life, and how best to live it, and he does it all with such brio and detail and humanity that you cannot help but be encouraged to follow his lead. He proves nothing that he doesn’t simultaneously subvert a little; he makes no over-arching argument montaigne.jpgabout the way humans must live; he has no logician’s architecture or religious doctrine. He slips past all those familiar means of telling other people what’s good for them, and simply explains what has worked for him and others and leaves the reader empowered to forge her own future – or, rather (for this is Montaigne), her own present.

It’s a philosophy rooted in the most familiar form of empiricism. It is resolutely down to earth. You can see its eccentric power by considering the alternative ways of doing what Montaigne was doing. Think of contemporary self-help books – and all the fake certainty and rigid formulae they contain. Or think of a hideous idea like “the purpose-driven life” in which everything must be forced into the box of divine guidance in order to really live at all. Think of the stringency of Christian disciplines – say, the spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola – and marvel at how Montaigne offers an entirely different and less compelling way to live. Think of the rigidity of Muslim practice and notice how much lee-way Montaigne gives to sin. This is a non-philosophical philosophy. It is a theory of practical life as told through one man’s random and yet not-so-random reflections on his time on earth. And it is shot through with doubt. Even the maxims that Montaigne embraces for living are edged with those critical elements of Montaigne’s thought that say “as far as I know” or “it seems to me” or “maybe I’m wrong”. And of course it begs the question that Pascal posed: how can skepticism not be skeptical about itself? Is it, in fact, a self-refuting way of being?

Logically, of course it refutes itself. And you can easily torment yourself with that fact. When I first tried to grapple with philosophy, the need to force every text I read into the rubric of “is this the truth about the world?” dominated everything. And in retrospect, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you do not have a desire to figure out the truth about the whole, you’ll never start the philosophical project at all. And you can find in philosophy any number of clues about how to live; you can even construct them into an ideology that explains all of human life and society – like Marxism or free market fundamentalism or a Nietzschean will to power. But as each totalist system broke down upon how-to-live-sdmy further inspection, I found myself returning to Montaigne and the tradition of skepticism he represents (and that reached one of its modern high points in the thought of Michael Oakeshott). Maybe we need to start with what little we actually do know – through experience, narrative, anecdote and conversation.

And here’s what we do know. We are fallible beings; we have nothing but provisional knowledge; and we will die. And this is enough. This does not mean we should give up inquiring or seeking to understand. Skepticism is not nihilism. It doesn’t posit that there is no truth; it merely notes that if truth exists, it is inherently beyond our ultimate grasp. And accepting those limits is the first step toward sanity, toward getting on with life. This is what I mean by conservatism. You can see why it has scarcely any resemblance to the fanatics, ideologues and reactionaries who call themselves “conservative” in America today.

But what Bakewell helped me see better is that Montaigne’s Stoic disposition really was influenced by a couple of epiphanies. The first was the loss of his dear friend, Etienne de la Boétie. The second was his own near-death experience in a riding accident. What he’s grappling with in both cases is loss. And what he seeks to do with his friendship is to understand what he lost more completely, which makes his essay “On Friendship” the greatest treatment of that theme ever penned. But his near-death experience – which he subsequently wrote down with eerily modern skills of careful observation – could be seen as the window onto his entire body of work. He works back from this reality – our inescapable finitude – to construct a deeper and more humane understanding of what life is for. By seeing the limits, he seems to say, we actually live more vividly and well and can die at peace with the world.

If I were to single out one theme of Montaigne’s work that has stuck with me, it would be this staringbookclub-beagle-tr-2 of death in the face, early and often, and never flinching. It is what our culture refuses to do much of the time, thereby disempowering us in the face of our human challenges. I was lucky in some ways – and obviously highly unlucky in others – that I experienced something like this early in my life as well: the prospect of my own imminent death and the loss of one of my closest friends and soulmates to AIDS. There was Scripture to salve it all; there was friendship to shoulder it all; there was hope to sustain it all. But in the end, I found myself returning to Montaigne’s solid sanity, his puzzlement and joy at life’s burdens and pleasures, his self-obsession that never somehow managed to become narcissism.

Is this enough? Or is it rather a capitulation to relativism, a manifesto for political quietism, a worldview that treats injustice as something to be abhorred but not constantly fought against? This might be seen as the core progressive objection to the way of Montaigne. Or is his sensibility in an age of religious terror and violence and fanaticism the only ultimate solution we have?

Email your thoughts to You can still buy the book here and join the conversation (or use the public library here). Update from our first participant:

As Sarah Bakewell points out in her wonderful book, people don’t just “read” Montaigne; they “meet” him. He’s not a classic author to tick off a personal must-read list but more like a good friend. Though I’ve never laid eyes on a word of his Essays, he has been my companion, my guru, my pal, my virtual best friend. My Michel has the friendly, bracing, comforting voice of an actor named Christopher Lane on my 49 hour, 39 minute audio book. For two months last year, Montaigne was alive, talking quietly to me, confiding in me his thoughts as I walked, drove, did household chores, rode the bus, and saw all my own fears and thoughts and immediate surroundings through his eyes.

I spend a great deal of time walking through Chicago with my son Walker, who has autism.

Read On

On Monday I’m planning to start the discussion over Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, so buy the book here if you’d like to join in. My intro to the book selection is here. A reader writes:

Great book recommendation, but I’m pretty pissed at the number of Game Of Thrones 513f2INPtgLspoilers that Bakewell crams in her work. Henri II is killed in a jousting tournament when his visor is knocked off and a splinter is lodged in his brain? Then his adolescent son takes over under the domineering regency of Cersei – I mean Catherine de Medici? Just replace “Huguenots” with “White Walkers” and I think I know how George RR Martin will end Song of Ice and Fire.

Seriously, this small passage in page 70 of my copy of How To Live was a great reminder that the Middle Ages were more brutal and hostile than even our modern imaginations. Actual history beats the hell out of fantasy.


I’m a subscriber to Dish, and enjoy the quality of its thought and breadth of exposure to interesting issues. For the second time now, I’ve downloaded a book you’ve recommended (just bought How to Live and just finished On Looking). But when I click on a link to give you credit for the purchase, it only takes me to the Kindle edition. I prefer Apple iBooks, to be read on my iPad. (Yes, I’ve drunk thebookclub-beagle-tr iKoolAid.) So I get out of Amazon, go to Apple, and buy the book there, but then you don’t get any credit, or even the knowledge that people are buying stuff you recommend. You might consider additional links to those of us who prefer a different online format.

The iBooks link is here. To help you find the book at a public library, go here. But this link to Amazon is the only way to support the Dish with some affiliate revenue (especially if you purchase other things on your shopping list during that web session). It’s pennies on the dollar, but those pennies add up for a small independent company.

Many readers are getting psyched about our latest Book Club selection, Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer. My full intro to the book selection is here. Buy the book through this link to support the Dish. One reader:

Just a note to say that I am delighted that your third book club discussion will be bookclub-beagle-trabout Montaigne. If you haven’t read it, Mark Lillia’s very positive review of Bakewell is worth checking out. She misses Montaigne’s implied critique of Christianity, he argues. And M’s worldview leaves no space for transcendence, or our inescapable attraction to it.

To me, Montaigne cures us of that desire, though only temporarily. In that sense he is a proto-liberal: a skeptic, of course, and a thinker who put stability in politics before truth. I’ve been a lurker until now, but I look forward to a discussion about Montaigne on the Dish. How the ethos Montaigne recommends is challenged today by religion and by unworldly politics would be a great focus. And also the parallels and differences between The Essays and blogging.

That’s exactly why I chose this. It’s not just about life; it’s about politics, ideology, and fanaticism. Montaigne’s disposition is what we lack so much today – and need to reclaim. Another reader exclaims:

Woo Hoo! Montaigne next!

Why did I pick up How To Live last year at my public library? Probably because I saw it mentioned on the Dish or on Maria 513f2INPtgLPopova’s website. I renewed it several times so I could take it with me on vacation … to France. I greatly enjoyed the format, mixing Montaigne’s biography with Sarah Bakewell’s commentary. And I learned so much about Montaigne’s life, his essays and 16th century French history to boot.

I live in the USA, but I am originally from the Bordeaux area of France, and I go home pretty much every year to visit family. So last summer, my one objective was to visit Montaigne’s estate, as it is less than an hour’s drive from my parents’ house. It felt like a pilgrimage. Walking up the stairs of the tower, standing in Montaigne’s library, looking up to decipher the inscriptions on the ceiling. Better than a trip to Lourdes!

I also used several sections of How To Live when I taught a survey of French literature to my Advanced French class this past school year. And the book is once again on my coffee table, so I can reread it this summer (along with my digital copy of Les Essais). So a big thank you (or should I say “mille mercis”!) to you, Andrew and the Dish, for introducing me to this wonderful book and for making me want to rediscover Montaigne’s essays. I am looking forward to reading what other book club participants will think about it.

Another nerds out even more:

You recommend the Frame translation of the essays, and I understand that translation is widely regarded as the most faithful in English. But I wonder if you’re aware that the New York Review of Books just a few months ago published selections from the 1603 Florio translation.

Read On

Question Of The Day

Jul 3 2014 @ 1:32pm

A reader asks:

What are you picking for Book Club #3? I’m super antsy … and July is here. Tell! Tell us! Tell us all! Or just respond so I may quietly read while everyone else is blowing shit up over the weekend.

Heh. Well, yes, it is July, and a major political book did not seem like the best way for me to read on the beach this summer. So I picked a book I’ve long wanted to read but never got around to – about an author who remains among my favorite non-fiction masters of all time and blogger avant la lettre: Montaigne.

The book is How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell.

It’s an innovative approach to biography – it’s really a series of meditations, based on Montaigne’s life and work, on some of life’s big questions. The “answers” to How To Live? come in many Montaigne-inspired recommendations: Survive Love and Loss; Question Everything; Live Temperately; Do A Good Job, But Not Too Good A Job; Give Up Control; among many others. It has an Amazon rating of 4.4 out of 5, and won the 2010 National Book Critics Circle Award for biography.

Some reviews:

“Ms. Bakewell’s new book, How to Live, is a biography, but in the form of a delightful conversation across the centuries.” —The New York Times
“So artful is Bakewell’s account of [Montaigne] that even skeptical readers may well come to share her admiration.” —New York Times Book Review

“Extraordinary…a miracle of complex, revelatory organization, for as Bakewell moves along she provides a brilliant demonstration of the alchemy of historical viewpoint.” —Boston Globe

“Well, How to Live is a superb book, original, engaging, thorough, ambitious, and wise.” —Nick Hornby, in the November/December 2010 issue of The Believer

“In How to Live, an affectionate introduction to the author, Bakewell argues that, far from being a dusty old philosopher, Montaigne has never been more relevant—a 16th-century blogger, as she would have it—and so must be read, quite simply, ‘in order to live’…Bakewell is a wry and intelligent guide.” —The Daily Beast

I also have an ulterior motive. For me, Montaigne’s essays – first read in college – have long been a source of enthusiasm and inspiration. His constant curiosity, his openness to new ideas, his willingness to change his mind, his capacity for growth and humor, his staggering honesty, his wit and humaneness: all helped create and nurture the emergence of the modern individual in the West. Along with Shakespeare, he saw humanity in his day in its entirety, and, like Shakespeare, was somehow able to regard it with the perspective of the ages. As literature, he also pioneered the essay as a form, and the personal voice in writing in ways not seen since Augustine. If there were one powerful influence behind my approach to blogging, it would be Montaigne.

bookclub-beagle-trSo dig in – and perhaps be inspired to go to the source material as well, as long as you get Donald Frame’s still-peerless translation. Sarah has agreed to join us in a few weeks to carry on the conversation. So let’s use this book to think about that simple question: how to live? It’s an area so ripe for reader anecdotes and stories and personal journeys that it seemed perfect for a summer discussion. Buy it here – and help give the Dish some affiliate income, and get yourself a deck-chair or a hammock.

And Happy Fourth!

Book Club: Sensing Too Much, Ctd

Jun 19 2014 @ 10:00am

A reader responds to the email from the parent of two sons with sensory processing disorder:

horowitz-onlookingAs a well-functioning but diagnosed older person on the autism spectrum, taking a walk is an annoying and frustrating event. I friggin’ notice everything. I have to force myself not to read every word in every ad, identify the make and model of every car I pass by, peek around to see what that sound was – even though I know it was just a car door closing or a skateboarder in the distance. It doesn’t ever, ever stop.

That said, taking these walks with Alexandra Horowitz and her guests in On Looking got me out of my head. Getting out of my own head doesn’t happen enough, even when reading insightful books. Now, when I walk, I remember some of the wisdom of her experts’ knowledge and I look for those things. I think, What am I smelling? I look at the annoying signs and instead of repeating the words over and over until I see another annoying sign, I look at the typeface. I force myself to focus. On building materials, on rocks, on asphalt even.

In some small sense, I’ve become a better autistic. Or at least a calmer walker.

Maria Popova, who is hosting the Book Club, responds to the reader:

I love this. It reminds me of a favorite passage from the book:

Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you. By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of orwell-2information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

The challenge this reader articulates, and a challenge for many on the autism spectrum, is that of being unable to turn off precisely those myriad external stimuli that the average person automatically misses. But what’s interesting is that over the past decade, growing bodies of research have shed light on the autistic mind as not lesser but different.

Perhaps one of its great advantages, and a key point of difference, is exactly this wide lens of attention coupled with narrow focus on each of the many things attended to – a fusion of what’s an either-or proposition for the nonautistic person. At its most acute, this advantage can manifest as anything from intricately detailed visual lists of everyday objects to mathematical genius. Autism advocate and pioneering animal behaviorist Temple Grandin has spoken about this beautifully in her TED talk and her introduction to the book Drawing Autism.

For the rest of us, though, missing “the vast majority of what is happening” is undoubtedly a survival strategy. I tried to imagine, biking through the city today, what it would be like if I paid attention to everything simultaneously – listened to every bird and every siren and every rushing executive yelling on her cell phone, looked at every storefront and every redhead and every fleeting reflection in a car window. I’d crash instantly – both literally and figuratively.

Follow the whole Book Club discussion here. Maria and Alexandra just recorded a short conversation over various aspects of On Looking, so stay tuned.

Book Club: Looking With New Eyes

Jun 12 2014 @ 2:17pm

What have you discovered in your daily routine since reading On Looking, our second Book Club selection? Our host, Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, posed that question to Dish readers earlier this week:

Perhaps the greatest gift of a book club is that we get to share our private realities around a common point of interest – the book – and in the process enrich the collective experience. With that in mind, what is one facet of your day or aspect of your usual daily routine – your apartment, your commute, your dog walk route – that On Looking helped you see with new eyes?

Let us know by emailing and we’ll post the most interesting observations and photos. Buy the book here (or here for your Kindle) if you haven’t already. Karen Carlson was looking for “a quick, light, purely fun read” when she picked up the book last summer:

And it was a fun read, very much so – but it also sent me scurrying to google horowitz-onlooking Clochan na bhFomharach, a volcanic formation in Northern Ireland consisting of thousands of columns of basalt pushed out of the ground. And that’s just in a footnote. … “Minerals and Biomass,” her walk with geologist Sidney Horenstein of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is when I got curious about volcanic leftovers in Northern Ireland. …

What surprised me most was how enchanted I was by the second chapter: “Muchness,” guided by the expert eyes of Horowitz’ 19-month-old son. I’m fairly immune to the charms of children, but this was engaging and informative. Horowitz is trained in cognitive science and teaches animal behavior at Barnard, and here she weaves nuggets from developmental psychology in to explain her son’s adoption of a standpipe as a pet, and his reaction to shadows.

She adds, “This book was just the break I wanted: an almanac of captivating anecdotes which will stick with me – and who knows, maybe one day I’ll take a walk, myself.” That’s what we’re hoping some readers will do. And that’s just what Ambre Nicolson, also inspired by “Muchness,” decided to do with her own toddler. An excerpt from their sojourn around Cape Town:

14h00: “Beep beep!”

My son, like Alexandra’s, is head over heels for any form of wheeled transport. Within the first 30m of our journey he has pointed out a red bus, several taxis, a bicycle and a shiny bookclub-beagle-trblack motorbike. Later in our journey he will be stopped, spellbound for almost 10 minutes, by the sight of a reversing garbage truck. While my son loves cars, it has been shown that spending too much time in one leaves kids without a healthy sense of connection to place. American urban researcher Bruce Appleyard has shown that kids who have a “windshield perspective” are less able to accurately draw a map of where they live, whereas kids who walked or biked could produce accurate and detailed maps of their communities.

Read On