A Quiet Space – Nothing to Do But Be In It

lightning-bolt-clipart-lightning-bolt-hi  Lightning in the area had closed the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit – the Bachman-Wilson house that had been moved from New Jersey to Arkansas, rebuilt, and restored – one of the reasons I was there. I chatted with the gate keeper, a young intern finishing her Masters in Museum Studies; I bought a book about Wright’s vision, and I hoped for the storm to wear itself out.

Ahead of everyone when the storm finally passed that afternoon, I was the first to wander through the narrow entrance, getting the house to myself for five minutes before the world crowded in behind me, mostly teenagers on a field trip. I imagined sitting on the built-in bench, looking out at the woods – my pilgrimage complete.

thumbnail_IMG_4374  The quiet space reminded me of Patricia Hampl’s The Art of the Wasted Day.  I had been prompted to find her book after reading her essay in the New York Times Sunday Review section – Scrap Your To Do List.   Following Hampl’s advice, I was doing nothing for the moment – just quietly staring out a window and wondering.  In her book, she identifies with Montaigne, her hero – and mine, redefining happiness as daydreaming, not afraid to do nothing, not even meditating – just reflecting and being open to insights that can only come in quiet solitude.

Like Hampl, I was trained by the nuns to always be productive, eschewing idleness and daydreaming as devilish pursuits.  Hampl writes:

“The idea of constantly doing something, of always accomplishing something, seems to be woven into the American DNA…while life and liberty are guaranteed, happiness isn’t, only the job of seeking it. The essential American word isn’t happiness. It’s pursuit.”

Sitting alone and quiet can be cathartic, and I am determined to do it more often. Hampl advises:

“Loafing is not a prudent business plan, not even a life plan, not a recognizably American project. But it begins to look a little like happiness, the kind that claims you unbidden…wondering, rather than pursuing…for once you don’t really need to have a to-do list.”

The Art of the Wasted Day was a good purchase, and I will go back to it often.  With references and excerpts from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, and Montaigne, Hampl forges her thoughts as an essayist into a travelogue of places, people, and memories, successfully convincing the reader that wasting time is not a waste after all.

Go ahead – daydream a little, waste a little time…who knows where it might lead your mind.

Related ReviewSarah Bakewell’s Montaigne – How to Live

Is It Time to Revisit Montaigne?

In the frenzy of caustic political diatribe in the weeks before the vote for President in the United States, Tim Parks offers the voice of reason in his articleShould Novels Aim for the Heart or the Head? in the Book Review section of the New York Times.  

“Montaigne’s position was always that we must be extremely careful about our emotions, in particular our tendency to get emotional about ideas.  He didn’t advise neutrality, but simply that ‘we should not nail ourselves so strongly to our humors and complexions.’ To foster emotions deliberately and habitually was dangerous, because once a strong emotion had kicked in it was very difficult to find a way back.”

The rhetoric of emotional intensity has spilled over from reality show television and action packed books and movies into the political arena, a place where the calm assessment of affairs has been replaced by dyspeptic rants, brutal verbal attacks on adversaries, and “horror for the future.”  Montaigne notes: “No one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”

9781590514832_p0_v1_s192x300   Rereading Sarah Bakewell’s A Life of Montaigne has immersed me into introspection – and a new appreciation for nonfiction.

 It will not stop me, however, from escaping reality and losing myself in the next book of fiction – life seems better when it’s not real all the time.  Alan Bradley has my attention now in the return of Flavia de Luce. 9780345539960_p0_v2_s192x300 



Sara Ruhl and Montaigne

How would you answer the question  “What books are currently on your night stand?” Would you be honest or try to impress?

A recent television episode of “Younger” has star Sutton Foster helping her  boss prepare to answer questions for a “By the Book” interview in the Book Review section of the Sunday New York Times.  Foster suggests classics – safe to enhance his profile.

Playwright Sara Ruhl knows how to mix humor with reality – her plays, “Dead Man’s Cell Phone” and “The Clean House,” had me laughing – and then I thought about what she was saying.  Her answers in “By the Book”included books I know and enjoyed, by authors Elizabeth Bishop, Katherine Mansfield, Jonathan Franzen, and Tina Fey.  But her mention



of Sarah Blakewell’s How to Live; Or, A Life of Montaigne – brought back a good memory, and the motivation to find the book and read it again. Have you read it?  One phrase I recall: How to live? Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.

Here is my review from 2011 – time for me to find the book again…

The World’s First Blogger – Montaigne

Anthony Bourdain

A chef who likes to think – or at least think about thinking.  In Kate Murphy’s New York Times interview of Anthony Bourdain, author of No Reservations and famous chef, traveler, food and people critic, Bourdain admits to reading Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer.  Bourdain’s comment on his reading:

“Montaigne’s essays {are} presented in a casual and contemporary way that reminds you why he is still relevant after nearly 500 years.  I got a tattoo because of that book…”

You can enjoy the book without getting a tattoo (“I suspend judgment”) or becoming an irritable cook.  Michel de Montaigne would suggest…

“No one is exempt from speaking nonsense – the only misfortune is to do it solemnly.”

Read my review of Bakewell’s book – here                                                                                       

Bourdain has a collection of essays too – reviewed here  

The World’s First Blogger – Montaigne

For Montaigne, it was getting rear-ended by another horse that started his twenty year journey of introspection and observation.  He had started to write for himself about death but, from 1572 to 1592,  he wrote and gave his opinion on anything and everything – horses, thumbs, death, fear, education, cannibals, smells, liars…

In How to Live – A Life of Montagne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, Sarah Bakewell writes a painless tutorial of a best-loved philosopher.  In a conversational style, she introduces Montaigne and explains his approach to life through a series of simple questions that would make the master proud.

Each chapter addresses the question – “how to live?”  and in Montaigne’s style offers a selection of twenty answers  that framed his life.  A sample:

  • How to live?  Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted.
  • How to live? Do something no one has done before.
  • How to live? Be ordinary and imperfect.

Don’t be fooled by Bakewell’s simplistic phrasing.  She uses each chapter answer to describe Montaigne and how he used everyday incidents to examine life – and write about it in his famous Essays.  Her organization allows Montagne to emerge effortlessly from the pages, but this is not an easy read.  Be prepared to delve into French history and Greek schools of philosophy.

Once started, I found the book hard to put down – educational and informative -although I admit I did not read every chapter studiously.  Bakewell sprinkles the narrative with Montaigne’s quotes, using them as a frame of reference in telling his biography, for example, the poor memory attributed to Montaigne prompted this line…

“unless a man feels he has a good enough memory, he should never venture to lie.”  

The chapters on Montaigne’s early life, political leanings, and the death of his best friend Étienne de La Boétie are methodical, but the pace picks up a little with a chapter on “little tricks and the art of living” and the beginning of “question everything”…

“All I know is that I know nothing, and I’m not even sure of that.”

Montaigne’s ideas are timeless, and Blakewell knew how to draw from them.  Take from her book what you will, as Montaigne would advise; it’s not necessary to read everything – unless you want to.

Interested in the primary source? Read some of The Essays 

or another book on Montaigne with a great title…