The Wonders of Philosophy on our Lives, with Alain de Botton

Philosophy as a tool for practicality, as a means for living our lives more fruitfully. This is what Alain de Botton’s book The Consolations of Philosophy aims to achieve, by exploring the lives of Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche.

In spite of the vast differences between the many thinkers described as philosophers across time, it seemed possible to discern a small group of men, separated by centuries, sharing a loose allegiance to a vision of philosophy suggested by the Greek etymology of the word — philo, love; sophia, wisdom — a group bound by a common interest in saying a few consoling and practical things about the causes of our greatest griefs.

It is easy to dismiss philosophy as useless, only fit for intellectuals, a bourgeosie occupation. But de Botton proves it isn’t so.

After all, weren’t Karl Marx, Hegel, Hippocrates, Socrates, Vladimir Lenin all philosophers who have created uncharted pathways in revolutions, industries and institutions?

While political philosophers like Marx tackled the evils of capitalism, philosophers featured in de Botton’s book all point to things in our lives that do need some balming, quiet, internal revolutions of their own: unpopularity, not having enough money, broken-heartedness, inadequacy, anxiety and the fear of failure.

Relevant and accessible, The Consolations of Philosophy points out similarities between the philosophers’ live and our own, problems that wo/man has encountered since the earliest time. It is funny, poignant and honest, things we all need to face what afflicts us.

On unpopularity

At one point in our lives we’ve all encountered who Socrates was; you might’ve learned about him in school or you’ve probably seen his infamous quote:

De Botton details Socrates’s life and challenges popular beliefs. Instead, he asks us to investigate ideas with little to no following. He believed that this is vital specially when the pressure to conform abounds. Socrates also provided a way of challenging beliefs that we may not agree with, and to do so with intentions of arriving at the truth.

For a man who was sentenced to die precisely for wanting to seek and arrive with others at the fundamental truth of any matter, we’re at an opportune time when independent thinking garners a lot less danger.

Socrates’s method of thinking promised us a way to develop opinions in which we could, even if confronted with a storm, feel veritable confidence.

It would be a shame to deprive ourselves, loved ones and our communities of this chance at truth; his death did not occur for us to receive what we don’t understand with blind acceptance.

True respectability stems not from the will of the majority but from proper reasoning.

Continue reading “The Wonders of Philosophy on our Lives, with Alain de Botton”

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#GetLit: A Libromance Round-up 

I started this blog in January 2016 and since then, I’ve posted over thirty book reviews, literary features and weekly lists. I’ve learned so much as I continue to devour the most fascinating and enlightening books, and it is my hope that I am able to impart what I learn through Libromance.

I am ever grateful to all my readers and subscribers — for you, for the time, generosity and love you’ve shown my little corner of the world. Thank you so much.

In the coming weeks (and months and years!), you can expect more book reviews, features and weekly musings. If you have any ideas or suggestions, say hello and drop me a line!

Here’s a round-up of the best Libromance reads:

The Rituals and Routines of Creatives A Sunday Spotlight piece featuring the habits of writers like Bob Ong, Stephen King and Annie Dillard.

A Personal Cartography with the Work of Junot Díaz A post on my personal experience reading Junot Díaz’s work — from Drown to This is How You Lose Her.

Can Buddhism & Activism Ever Co-Exist? Reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s book led me to question the possibilities of Buddhism and activism.

A Different Way of Looking with Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton This is a compendium of how I was inspired and influenced by the French author, through the eyes of British philosopher Alain de Botton.

Finding Time to Read An honest-to-goodness list of ways on carving out precious reading time.

Sunday Spotlight: The Rituals & Routines of Creatives

I recently picked up Mason Currey’s Daily Rituals: How Artists Work after seeing the cover at City Lights Bookstore, at San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, once the home of beatnik writers like Jack Kerouac. I’ve always been fascinated by the routines, rituals and creative practice of artists — from writers like Audre Lorde and James Baldwin to painters like Georgia O’Keeffe and Pierre Bonnard.

When you are moved by a particular book or a painting, it’s hard not to wonder about the life of the writer or the painter, what induced its genesis, how it was created. It is a curiosity out of admiration and a tiny hope of, perhaps, being able to recreate the process with one’s own work.

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The book contains a glimpse of the lives of about 161 artists — writers, painters, thinkers, philosophers — in a few pages detailing their routines and at times quirky habits while doing their work. I am thankful for Currey’s work on this compendium as it enlightens and entertains, in a way that calms the nervous and anxious writer’s heart.

I am always most curious about writers and I’ve featured a few writers here on my blog and in others. Reading and writing about them has always been a joy. After coming back from the Philippines, I read Bob Ong for the first time after it was recommended by a close friend. His book Stainless Longganisa is part-memoir/part-writing manifesto, and it is filled with references only Filipinos would understand — truly unmissable.

I’ll never forget Ong’s words on not letting the space alotted for our words go to waste. There are things to be written, ideas to be shared and ultimately, worlds that unravel between the writer and the reader. And there’s nothing quite like that intimacy, all on paper.

And then there’s Marcel Proust, the French writer whom I’ve actually never read before. I read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life and it was a detailed picture of the writer’s work and life, from the lavish parties he attended to the writing he did in bed. I have an illustrated copy of In Search of Lost Time that I’ve yet to open, and I think this will only nourish my understanding of his work.

I wrote about how reading the book can give birth to a different way of looking at the things around us, however grand or mundane. Proust was a sickly man, who was domestically helpless, who wrote with an adequate bedside lamp. He managed his day-to-day existence with hired help who fed and clothed him, as he wrote scrupulously.

There is no better way of coming to be aware of what one feels oneself than by trying to recreate in oneself what a master has felt. In this profound effort it is our thought itself that we bring out into the light, together with his. (Marcel Proust)

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And then there’s Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, a book I read a couple of years ago. I was still living in Oakland at that time and Dillard was with me every time I crossed the Bay Bridge underwater, in the shuttle on the winding, uphill streets of San Francisco. I remember being mesmerized, enchanted by Dillard, who wrote about birds flying under her chair and locking herself in a cabin, devoid of the world so she can write.

Get to work. Your work is to keep cranking the flywheel that turns the gears that spin the belt in the engine of belief that keeps you and your desk in midair. (Annie Dillard)

Her practice consisted of avoiding appealing workplaces, so that imagination can meet memory in the dark. The work of Viet Thanh Nguyen reminds me of this, in his Pulitzer-Prize winning novel The SympathizerDillard preferred to revel in her solitude, a feat in itself that sought to highlight the passage of time and how we spend our days.

Reading has always been, and will always be my first love. Writers also cannot stress this enough — that in order to write well, one must read a lot. Dillard mused on what constitutes a good life, what an appealing daily schedule looks like. It is her, who said after all, that how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.

There is no shortage of good days. It is good lives that are hard to come by. A life of good days lived in the senses is not enough. The life of sensation is the life of greed; it requires more and more. The life of the spirit requires less and less, time is ample and its passage sweet. Who would call a day spent reading a good day? But a life spent reading — that is a good life. (Annie Dillard)

I also just finished Stephen King’s On Writing: A Craft of the Memoir, as he documents his childhood and what has informed his writing throughout the years. He provides the reader an in-depth look on his experiences, life lessons and warns forthcoming writers of the perils of shortcuts and easy way outs; the book review will be out this Tuesday on Libromance.

At the core of Currey’s book and at the heart of Ong, Dillard and King’s routines is the act of putting pen on paper (or fingers on the Macbook) and writing away. Nothing is clearer and simpler than the act itself, no matter how many workshops one takes, or whatever fancy tools one uses (I got a trial version of Scrivener, a writing software, once to help me write a book only to discover that it made the whole process more daunting). The poet Rainer Maria Rilke said it best:

This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (Rainer Maria Rilke)

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All photos & infographics from this post are lovingly made by the cool folks at Info We Trust.

#GetLit: Bibliotherapy

I’ve long been a fan of writer and philosopher Alain de Botton  who founded The School of Life (TSOL), which is devoted to creating emotional intelligence with the help of culture. One of the many services of TSOL is called Bibliotherapy, a therapy session that “helps you explore your relationship with books and guide you to anew literary direction.” I gushed at this idea because, well, this whole blog is dedicated to literature.

Ceridven Dovey wrote about her experience with TSOL’s Bibliotherapy, calling the session a “gift” after corresponding with Bibliotherapist Ella Barthoud.

We had some satisfying back-and-forths over e-mail, with Berthoud digging deeper, asking about my family’s history and my fear of grief, and when she sent the final reading prescription it was filled with gems, none of which I’d previously read.

It’s not the first time that I’ve read about this idea — I had, once, a delightful and enchanting experience reading Nina George’s The Little Paris Bookshop. I wrote about it here too, and it was such a joy to meet Monsiuer Perdu, the bookshop’s owner.

It turns out that this is not a new practice, as Dovey references A Literary Clinic that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly back in 1914. She points out that today, bibliotherapy comes in different forms such as literature courses and reading circles. The demand for literature, it seems, is growing even as we move towards an age of instantaneous information. There’s Oprah’s Book Club, and there’s also classes like The Craft of Reading at the UC Berkeley Extension.

In the Spring of 2015, I enrolled in the online class where I was introduced to the work of Alice Munro, Marguerite Duras and Iris Chang. Engaging in discussions with other readers in class was exhilarating — demystifying Duras’s The Lover was a thrill, and so was crossing Munro’s verbal landscapes.

I’ve also engaged in mini-bibliotherapy sessions myself: recommending Miguel Ruiz’s The Four Agreements to a friend and my sisters; how I’ve given bell hooks’s All About Love to previous lovers at the beginning our soon-to-fail relationships (since 2012, a period of turmoil); gifting Michael Pollan’s Food Rules one Christmas to my mother’s siblings (all nine of them); giving a copy of John Perkins’s Confessions of an Economic Hit Man to my father, so he could see the scope of American imperialism from a different lens; and countless other times.

Below are a few of my musts, books that I’ve gone back to several times, titles that I’ve shared with loved ones and strangers. They are timeless, generous and full of illumination. From my bookshelf to yours, here’s my version of literary prescription.

Bibliotherapy: Straight from Libromance

 Autobiography of a Yogi  The Lover  All About Love: New Visions  The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly?  The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom

 How Proust Can Change Your Life  Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches  Letters to a Young Poet  Zami: A New Spelling of My Name  The Sympathizer

L’intimité de la vie quotidienne, with Adam Gopnik and Pierre Bonnard

I visited the Pierre Bonnard: Painting Arcadia exhibit over the weekend, at the Legion of Honor in San Francisco. I have never heard of Bonnard nor seen any of his works before, but as of late anything French has been a keen interest. The second part of the exhibit, curated by Esther Bell features the artist’s intimisme, painted works which detail domestic interiors with an intimate subject matter. He depicted scenes at the breakfast table, women reading the newspaper awashed in morning light, tables laden with food. What Bonnard does is capture these moments tenderly, reminiscent of the way the writer Marcel Proust proposed a different way of looking in Alain de Botton’s How Marcel Proust Can Change Your Life.

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The Breakfast Table (ca. 1925, Oil on Canvas)

The effect of these painted works on me was heightened, with Adam Gopnik’s book Paris to the Moon fresh on my mind. I got a used copy at the SF Big Book Sale in April, after seeing Alain de Botton’s (again) praise on the cover. I picked up it in a hurry without reading what it was about, and the book proved to be an exercise in good judgment.

Paris to the Moon details Gopnik’s move to Paris with his wife Martha and his son Luke from New York in 1995. He talks briefly about his childhood, blithely recounting the cardboard Parisian policeman he once had, family vacations in Europe to meeting Martha, who loved Paris as much as he did. I had to heave several sighs of wistful longing. After Luke was born, the family made its way to across the Atlantic to an apartment on the Left Bank street, second floor.

The odd thing in making a big move is the knowledge that your life will be composed of hundreds of small things that you will arrive at only by trial and error, and that for all the strikes and seminars you attend, the real flavor of life will be determined, shaped by these things.

 

My fascination with Paris, and France in general, started with literature (as do other things in my life). It wasn’t too long ago when I regarded France with a bat of the hand, scrunching up the side of my face after rolling my eyes and mouthing “colonizer.” But James Baldwin changed all of that.

When I read one of his books, Giovanni’s Room, I was glued to the characters of David and Giovanni’s lives in the tiny room that was ‘theirs.’  I started reading more about Baldwin after that, wanting to understand why France was ideal for him. When you hail from a Third World Country, it is usually the American Dream that permeates your ancestral and personal ideal. In an interview with The Paris Review, Baldwin states: It wasn’t so much a matter of choosing France—it was a matter of getting out of America. 

Nevertheless, France became a refuge for the writer, while I joined the nameless group of writers who think of France as a sort of literary mecca. While I have never been to the country, I think Gopnik summarizes what draws the Francophile in:

It is not an old or antiquated Paris that we love, but the persistent, modern material Paris, carrying on in a time of postmodern immateriality, when everything seems about to dissolve into pixels. We love Paris not out of “nostalgia” but because we love the look of light on things, as opposed to the look of light from things, the world reduced to images radiating from screens. Paris was the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been: cafes, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look.

 

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The Cafe “Au Petit Pucet,” Place Clichy in the Evening (1928, Oil on Canvas)
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La Place Clichy (1912, Oil on Canvas)

Continue reading “L’intimité de la vie quotidienne, with Adam Gopnik and Pierre Bonnard”

How to Have a Traveling Mindset, with Alain de Botton

Alain de Botton does it again — for me at least, with his book The Art of Travel (Shop your local indie bookstore). As a Pisces through and through, the mind is always in another place, city, country or continent far from where the feet are planted. There is a restlessness everyday, and I’m one to daydream all day long until I’ve had my fill of whatever place I want to be in.

But the fill is never enough, with the advent of the internet and all the travel subscriptions and newsletters and travel promos. The more begrudging each day becomes, the more the incessant need to wander.

This book was gifted to me by a friend who knew my wandering ways. After reading the book, I realized that I was actually more grounded than I thought I would.

There is an art to traveling, de Botton explains, something that is intricately tied to our happiness more than we care to think of. To illustrate his points, he observes and parallels the conditions of the soul with writers, poets and thinkers as he himself engages in its art.

From his explorations in Barbados to Denmark, here are four notable things to think of in when it comes to traveling: Continue reading “How to Have a Traveling Mindset, with Alain de Botton”

Sunday Spotlight: San Francisco’s Big Book Sale 

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San Francisco Big Book Sale, Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason

It’s that time again for one of my favorite sale events in the Bay — the San Francisco Big Book Sale! This bi-annual event is put together by the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library around Spring time and in the Fall, wherein donated books and media are sold for $1-$3 each.

My first BBS was back in 2011 and I came on the last day of the sale where coincidentally, all books were on (an even bigger) sale for $1 each. I was so overwhelmed with the quantity and accessibility of the sale that I must have bought around 50+ titles. Bibliophile gone wild.

I admit that I haven’t been able to go through all of those books and I’ve also donated most of them. This time however, I planned on being more intentional.

Hello warehouse of my dreams.

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Continue reading “Sunday Spotlight: San Francisco’s Big Book Sale “

Architectonic Feelings in Old San Juan 

Back in November 2015, a friend and I went on a brief trip to Puerto Rico. I had made plans to fly back to the Philippines a year before for three weeks, to attend a women’s conference and to spend time with friends and family. Around July, I discovered that the conference has been moved to an earlier date and I also needed to stay in the Bay as some pretty special folks were visiting.

I just finished Alain de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness and my trip to Puerto Rico came into full view right away. After sleeping at the airport in Orlando, Florida to catch the earliest flight the next day, we rushed to our hotel to shower, change, acclimate to the city.

Our first stop (and the only one I was able to go to): Old San Juan.

In silent awe. Old San Juan, Puerto Rico (November 2015)

Continue reading “Architectonic Feelings in Old San Juan “

A Different Way of Looking, with Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton

What I know of Marcel Proust: nada. What I know of Alain de Botton: quite a lot, although not personally, but enough for me to dive deep into one of his books, How Proust Can Change Your Life (Shop your local indie bookstore).

One of the things that I’ve truly been enamored with Proust/de Botton’s compendium is a new way of looking: of a character in one of Proust’s essays where he forces a dissatisfied youth to take in Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s paintings of mundane things, not-so-special moments: of bowls of fruit, loaves of bread, kitchen utensils, one reading a book, a mother showing her daughter some mistakes in needlework as opposed to paintings in the Louvre’s “grand palaces painted by Veronese, harbor scenes by Claude, and princely lives by Van Dyck.” That there is beauty in a lot of things that is already around us, and that we are just plainly inattentive to these details. de Botton points out this lack of capacity of seeing beauty is not due to laziness or inattention, but more so because we are inexperienced with looking. 

The happiness that may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception. It reveals the extent to which our dissatisfactions may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them. Appreciating the beauty of crusty loaves does not preclude our interest in a chateau, but failing to do so must call into question our overall capacity for appreciation.

  Continue reading “A Different Way of Looking, with Marcel Proust and Alain de Botton”