My Favorite Tome

So part of my mental preparation for today’s guest-blogging was suffering through bouts of paralyzing anxiety over the ridiculous idea that I could tell the entire internet about ANYTHING it hadn’t already heard of.

See, to me, this whole blogging thing seems an impossible assignment. I can’t possibly come up with anything YOU haven’t heard of, and so the only other option, it seems, would be to write about myself. And, well, we tried that, and as a result we now have what will forever be known in blogger lore as the “Krispy Kreme Donut Essay Fiasco.” So we’re not doing something like that again.

One option might have been for me to write some comedy pieces for today, but with all of the worrying I had to do in preparation for these fleeting hours, and the lack of sleep they caused, how was I supposed to find time to write!?

OK, I’m only kidding. But, no, I didn’t write anything. Sorry. Well, I do have one idea for a Romenesko parody. Well see if that comes together.

But I did consider whether I could recommend a book, and here’s one you might not know about: From Dawn to Decadence, by Jacques Barzun.

Barzun has written a witty and fast-paced intellectual history of Western Civilization from 1500 the present. He’s also infused the work with these novel, entertaining aspects (now you see that when I’m writing on the fly the quality is somewhat diminished — “aspects”? Yuck) — anyway, these “aspects” (Carman’s maladroit term), —there’s a word I’m looking for, for “aspects” up there —

Anyway, one thing Barzun does is put certain words in all capitals. Once you’ve read a little way into the book, you’ll recognize these as the words you would write down in all caps yourself, in your spiral notebook, were you taking his class. It’s as if the lifetime he spent teaching at Columbia (and elsewhere) gave Barzun a keen sense of what words students write down. So, you’ll get something like this, “so-and-so’s outlook on these issues is another example of PRIMITIVISM.” I laugh every time he does this.

He also has these little block quotes in the margin, a kind of tiny sampling of some of the writing he happens to be discussing, and they are usually hilarious. They are like little intellectual station breaks. Barzun has worked with his material for a lifetime, and he obviously NEVER stops thinking — I read somewhere that he said his lifetime’s output was the result of “the gift of insomnia” — and so this book is unlike any other book of its kind I’ve ever come across. It’s the best guide to the classics and the history of Western Civilization that I know of.

I should have first mentioned that the book is basically the written version of the literature / humanities track that all Columbia students get in their first and second years, the famous “Core Curriculum.” Barzun developed that course, and so he knows the material, and he also writes like a gentle, fatherly instructor. My brother, who teaches there, allows that the book actually might be better, in some ways, than actually taking C.C., which, of course, you and I cannot do. Well, see, maybe you actually went to Columbia and took the course. See what I mean about how impossible this is?

Anyway, this is a book to read over the course of a lifetime, especially because you’ll want to stop and explore some of the writers and ideas Barzun is constantly throwing at you.

If you want the same sort of thing, but on the lighter side, David Denby’s Great Books is also an entertaining read. Denby dealt with his mid-life crisis by going back and taking “lit-hum”, and Great Books is his journalistic report. Denby gives you about one take-home idea per Great Thinker, which at least helps give some perspective on these guys. I don’t know about you, but I can’t just sit down with, say, one of Nietzsche’s works and instantly understand the guy. Well, what I mean is, if you have a reliable guide, it makes the works that much more accessible and rewarding. A grant to go back to school and take the Columbia core curriculum. That’s what I want.

For Nietzsche, by the way, Richard Schacht’s Nietzsche is a great, accessible, readable work that succinctly explains most of what N. was doing. Ray Monk’s biography is also supposed to be good, but I haven’t read that one yet.

Also, you’ll be amazed at how many good ideas for comedy essays come out of reading the classics and excellent secondary sources. Have I convinced you what a far-flung eccentric I am yet?

Finally, I promised myself that I would claim on today’s blog that Maurice Merleau-Ponty is the next big thing in philosophy. And, it’s true. You heard it here first. It’s only a matter of time until you start seeing his name dropped into New Yorker articles, and his life as the basis for a series of first novels and experimental fictions. Trust me on this one.


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