May 31, 2020
Readers, we are stuck at home. If, like me, you detest reading electronically, and have qualms about getting books delivered, you are turning to old favorites on your shelves. You have industrious company. For a certain kind of writer, fascination with a particular author can lead to a book.
The late critic Harold Bloom once said that Wordsworth taught him how to be alone with himself. John Kaag leans on William James. Although Kaag has written on other eminent philosophers, his latest book extends a dialogue he has carried on with the American pragmatist since his post-doc days at Harvard. In “Sick Souls, Healthy Minds: How William James Can Save your Life,” Kaag deftly interweaves the evolution of his own thinking with a lucid account of James’s development.
A professor at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, Kaag opens with a portrait of James as a depressed young man. Lacking today’s therapies, he sets out to fix himself. Kaag proposes that the resulting philosophy of healthy-mindedness might serve us all as an effective home remedy.
James’s intellectual crisis was rooted in his fear that determinism dictates our actions. His rebirth began with recognizing that chance exists, and offers opportunities for human intervention. Facing down despair, James decided to believe in free will.
As channeled by Kaag, James proves a deeply thoughtful adviser. Kaag, twice divorced and himself schooled by setbacks, turns this brainy self-help book into a twofer.
Unlike Kaag, the biographer Deirdre Bair spent most of her career trying to stay out of the story. In her latest book, a “bio-memoir” published not long before her death, she finally relented. “Parisian Lives: Samuel Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and Me” is both a candid portrait of two notable figures and a moving reconstruction of how Bair turned herself into an accomplished professional.
While a young mother and graduate student at Columbia, Bair chose Beckett for her dissertation topic. Realizing that no good biography existed, she wrote to him and suggested herself for the job. To her surprise, and pretty much everyone else’s since, he said yes.
For most of the 1970s, Bair was consumed by Beckett. “Parisian Lives” depicts her as thorough and dogged but also vulnerable. As she forged ahead, she was humiliated to discover that Beckett and his circle did not take her seriously.
When at last her book was published, the tribe of white males who dominated Beckett scholarship sneered, and Bair endured dismissive reviews. Yet “Parisian Lives” is not devoted to score settling. The fact that “Samuel Beckett: A Biography” won the National Book Award is barely mentioned. Instead, alongside Bair’s modesty and grit, Beckett’s complex personality comes distinctly alive.
Simone de Beauvoir, the subject of Bair’s second biography, emerges as equally formidable. At one point in their years-long association, she threw Bair out of her apartment. Yet by the time of de Beauvoir’s death, in 1986, Bair’s respect for this not-always-admirable feminist icon had turned to love.
Of course, it may be easier to love an author you will never meet. Martha Ackmann’s “These Fevered Days: Ten Pivotal Moments in the Making of Emily Dickinson” proclaims her all-in allegiance to one of our foremost poets.
Starting with Dickinson as a vivacious 14-year-old, Ackmann reconstructs 10 experiences that she believes decisively shaped the writer’s career. In the process, she illuminates several of the poems.
Ackmann comes well prepared for the task. She first read Dickinson at 16, describing the moment as one in which she herself felt irrevocably changed. For two decades, in Dickinson’s Amherst home, she taught a seminar on the poet to Mount Holyoke students.
Nevertheless, though steeped in scholarship, “These Fevered Days” is a work of the imagination. Ackmann enters Dickinson’s consciousness where she sees fit. Among her more vivid re-creations is the poet’s meeting with her mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson. When, after a decade of correspondence, he finally visits her, Higginson encounters a flustered motor-mouth whose intensity exhausts him.
Training his eye on Marcel Proust, Alain de Botton contemplates another literary prodigy who, if anything, logged even more isolated hours than Emily Dickinson. In “How Proust Can Change Your Life,” de Botton offers the kind of guidance Kaag derived from James.
Although, as de Botton notes, Proust spent his last 14 years lying in bed, his monumental “In Search of Lost Time” offers multiple lessons in how to appreciate life. Departing from what he calls the human talent for unhappiness, de Botton elucidates several.
It may be fitting to take instruction just now from Proust — the son of a French doctor who, it turns out, was obsessed with halting infectious diseases. Surviving a pandemic, as we are learning, takes a healthy mind as well as a healthy body. A good workout can begin with the right book.