February, 2016

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The wisdom of the ages

I think Solomon had it right. According to the story, when God asked him what he most desired, instead of asking for power or possessions, he asked for wisdom. There is evidence all around that it is entirely possible to accumulate a great deal of power and possessions without necessarily basing this on a commensurate amount of wisdom. In Solomon’s case, as well as returning a baby to its rightful mother, he also managed to do quite well for himself materially.

There is no shortage of places we can look to gain wisdom. Humans have been wrestling for a long time with questions of how to make good decisions in a consistent way, consistent both with other individual decisions, and with something overarching that gives a framework, a set of values or principles that we can use to guide our lives.


I gravitated towards Stephen Covey’s approach for a number of reasons. I happened to hear a talk he gave when I was a student and hadn’t ever heard of the man. It was free, someone said I should go, and someone else drove me there. Life as a student can be as simple as that. I can’t remember anything of note that he said that night. But when I came across him later, I remembered the name, and it turned out he had written the best-selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And when I started reading that, I was sold. I liked that he recognised the difference between substance and style and that, in the long run, that difference matters. And I appreciated the honesty of what he offered – not quick fixes, not techniques, but challenges to how we act and treat ourselves and each other.

A few years ago I came across the phrase “to have or to be.” It struck a chord in me. And I think that fact in itself says something. It’s that moment when we hear an echo of something we already knew but couldn’t bring out into the open, or find words to express. It turns out that this phrase (and I have no idea if the person it came from was even aware of this) is the title of a book by Erich Fromm. Bearing in mind that this was written in 1976, just listen to the opening sentence and then some extracts from the next page:

The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress – the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number and of unimpeded personal freedom – has sustained the hopes and faith of the generations since the beginning of the industrial age. […]

The grandeur of the Great Promise, the marvellous material and intellectual achievements of the industrial age, must be visualised in order to understand the trauma that realisation of its failure is producing:

Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being.

The dream of being independent masters of our lives ended when we began awakening to the fact that we have all become cogs in the bureaucratic machine, with our thoughts, feelings and tastes manipulated by government and industry and the mass communications that they control.

The gap  between rich and poor nations has ever widened.

Technical progress itself has created ecological dangers which may put an end to all civilisation and possibly to all life.

And that’s just from the first couple of pages. He doesn’t mess around. The back cover gives a good summary of the book – “two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode, which concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression, and is the basis of the universal evils of greed, envy, and violence; and the being mode, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing, and in productive activity.”

He raises questions that I find worthwhile engaging with, wrestling with, comparing with alternative perspectives, and ultimately asking “what does this mean for me?”

And of course there are many other writers and thinkers, different slants on the same questions and challenges, going back centuries. Marcus Aurelius doesn’t become any less relevant over time. And I’m currently listening to some letters Seneca wrote centuries ago that are as useful a challenge today as they were when he wrote them:

There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

AC Grayling tried to compile some of these traditions of wisdom literature in The Good Book. I find it hard to engage with that particular book, but I admired the attempt (not to mention the amount of work involved!). And there are some great parables and proverbs in there that you can dip in and out of – a quick source of something to reflect on for a while. My favourite memory of his book was when he was at the Edinburgh Book Festival several years ago at an event chaired by Richard Holloway, who marched in holding the book out in front of him in the way he (apparently) used to when an Episcopalian minister.

It’s not just in overtly “wisdom literature” that we can find inspiration. Fiction can in some cases be just as effective. And some writers have done very well from writing fiction which is based around a message or a perspective the writer wants us to engage with.

Just to start with, there’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Little Prince, pretty much anything by Paulo Coelho. They seem to have the ability to help us to stop for long enough to think and reflect. Sometimes we might even take action as a result. But there are countless other works of fiction that can teach us something, allow us to experience something through the perspective of a fictional character that we will never experience in real life. Just because they don’t set out to teach us something doesn’t mean they do not do so.

One thing all these books have in common is the ability to surprise me each time I read them, or just dip back into them. It’s the “that wasn’t there the last time I read it” feeling that comes from seeing something for the first time that is particularly relevant to a question I’m thinking about or a problem I’m struggling with. Often I find I did know the answer all along, it was just something I couldn’t quite get a proper hold of, or something I was trying to avoid accepting. Wisdom is valuable, but it is not as often easy or convenient, particularly when it requires me to do something I would rather not. I suspect Solomon felt a bit nervous when his solution to identifying the baby’s mother was to suggest cutting the baby in half, with the real mother the only one of the two not to find this a pragmatic solution. But we all benefit from the thoughts, experiences and challenges of others that help to form a body of wisdom that is handed down over generations. Maybe we will even contribute to that in some little way in how we treat other people with our words and actions.

The (new) plan

Maybe there are just some things we have to learn over and over again.

I am not, and have never been, the most organised person. The piles of books I mentioned last week are just one small example. As is my general inability to find what I am looking for when I really need it. In fairness, putting a camera flash in the drawer where sundry running accessories go might not have been down to me.

It’s not that I don’t think it’s a good idea to have plans for some things, it’s just that it’s not how I think. I did my PhD by figuring out what I needed to know or find out as I went along, and then going and finding it out. It worked out fine and I was never bored, maybe because I was never quite sure myself what was coming next.

But it turns out that the same approach doesn’t necessarily lend itself to writing a novel. I have a lot of material I’ve written. An awful lot. And – despite the inconsistencies – some of it actually works together. But while some of the parts are, I hope, worth keeping, the whole doesn’t hang together and there is far too much that will never fit in.

So I have stopped churning out words for a bit. And the wallpaper has come out, which is an improvement on the A3 sheets I was using before to try to put some structure around my disjointed ideas.


Yes, it’s a piece of wallpaper – and some very small writing!

So before I write another word, I am figuring out how I get everybody from where they start to where it all ends, from one end of the wallpaper to the other. And this includes deciding where the starting point is. I can take it back two generations before some of the characters were born – useful writing exercises, but not helpful for the task in hand. But having a structure around everything is probably the only way I’m going to avoid the tangents I keep going down. Even though they are so interesting and I want to see where they lead. The trouble is they don’t lead towards the end, or even to what happens next. They just take me somewhere that I can’t get out of.

I have now accepted that I need the whole to work, into which the pieces fit. Otherwise it just won’t work. Then I can get back to the writing part and this time not waste so much time on fascinating irrelevancies! And I get to look at some beautiful paperweights at the same time – the solution to automatically curling wallpaper!


Some good reads

All my bookshelves are full, there are boxes of books under the eaves of the attic, which I am just hoping will continue to survive the temperature and heat fluctuations throughout the year, and this is one of the piles of books to be read, currently at least taking up only one corner of one room.

Piles of books

My solution to this was to ignore the piles completely and read a few books I had on my Kindle which I had also not got to.

It appears that some people read only one book at a time. I learned this recently. I thought everyone had several on the go at the same time. I think I must average about five at a time, or at least five that I consider I am  conscious that I think I am reading. At the moment, I think that equates to a biography of someone nobody else will have heard of (he ran a part of the East German government), the autobiography of one of the original small group that came back to Germany from the Soviet Union immediately after the war, a book by Joseph Stiglitz on why inequality is such a bad thing for everybody, a novel by Stephen King in audiobook format (I’m about a third of the way into it and I have no idea what it’s even about – strange for him), a superb novel by Elizabeth McGregor (total surprise find on my Kindle, it must have been on offer at some point), and I think I’m trying to read Gone Girl but not very committed to that one after a few chapters. Oh, and then there’s Thomas Piketty’s book… that’s hard going, I don’t think I’m really reading that one.

I think I am slowly winning, though, having got through three novels in about as many weeks. At that rate, I might have started to make a dent in the unread ones by the end of the year. And I’m really trying not to look at the books coming out soon.

Here are some thoughts on the two most recent novels I finished.

All the Light we Cannot See by Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and about a gazillion other awards. My experience is that this does not necessarily mean they will be a good read, as opposed to of enduring literary merit. For me, literary merit is fine as long as it’s a good read. This book is the story of a French girl and a German boy who grow up in the years before and during the Second World War. The girl, Marie-Laure, is blind and her father makes elaborate models of where they live, by which she learns to navigate the real world outside. Her world is turned upside down when she has to flee Paris and ends up in a small village by the coast in the house of her apparently mad great-uncle. Meanwhile, Werner grows up in the industrial heartland of Nazi Germany. He is far too bright to accept the fate decreed for him of going to work at fifteen in the coal mines which are powering the new empire, but the dream of becoming involved in the technical advances propelling the war forward moves slowly into the nightmare reality of that war.

I was bowled over by the writing of this book. It went at such a pace it was too easy to miss the beauty of the language which was everywhere.

His voice is low and soft, a piece of silk you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.

Time is a slippery thing: lose hold of it once, and its string might sail out of your hands forever.

To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a  place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air.

Each chapter is so tightly written that it’s hard to believe he gets through so much so quickly without anything missing. There are multiple themes running throughout the book, and a constant expectation of what is to come, if and how the two characters will ever meet and what will become of them.

The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer is a fairly disconcerting read. This might have to do with the fact that there is something decidedly not normal about the narrator (to say any more would give too much away). His interactions with his family, with strangers, with everyone, are very strange. And the writing captures what is going on in the narrator’s head in a way that really has you wondering if you have any idea what is real and what is just in his head.

We are unsure what happened between the narrator and his brother, a mystery which unravels and at times re-ravels (is that even a word?). And we remain unsure about a lot of what is going on, or not going on, throughout.

There is one particular feature of the book which was a first for me. The font changes from time to time depending on when the narrator was writing that particular part. The whole book is a series of scraps of writing from different times, in different places, and from different mental states. It’s very effective, but the overall sense of the book remains – disconcerting. But very clever and convincing.

I think this counts as reading more widely – it took me two attempts to get beyond the first chapter of The Shock of the Fall, but once I got that little bit further, it was compelling.

Seeing how these novels are constructed is incredibly helpful. And I’m now finding that I’m figuring out more of the twists and endings in both novels and films. I have also learned not to mention this at the end of a film when I’ve watched it with the girls and had to wait for half of it to confirm what I suspected.

Meanwhile, I have to get back to that pile at some point.