And now it’s time for an episode of “What is Kelsi Reading?” (And just like that, I decided to give up total anonymity. I may have made better decisions at other points in my life but OH WELL.)
At the moment I am reading:
Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham – Because it is true, I have turned into your dad. I’ve been molto into U.S. presidential history for the last year or so (ok, well, molto is relative, since I have what you might call a LOT of interests.) But I have made it a long term goal to read biographies of all the presidents; thus, it is a little weird that this is the second Jefferson biography I’ve read in the last year. I have a lot of ground to cover, so why spend so much time on one dude?
Well. WELL. The first Jefferson biography I read was American Sphinx, and I came away from that with the thoughtful, well-reasoned opinion that “Thomas Jefferson was kind of a douche.” Although clearly brilliant, determined, thoughtful, literally revolutionary, popular, history-making, absolutely genius, American Sphinx also revealed him with all of his character flaws in a way that made them nearly inexcusable.
But then a very good friend gave me The Art of Power for my birthday, and I am weak in the face of tomes of history. And it turns out that The Art of Power is (prepare to be shocked) worthy of its accolades. Not only is it well researched, well written and absolutely compelling, but I think Jon Meacham actually likes Thomas Jefferson – something that, in retrospect, I don’t believe Joseph Ellis (who wrote American Sphinx) particularly does.
It was rare, in my formal education, for history to be drawn together in tight little bows, and for the sketches of icons on dollar bills to turn into real men with real relational issues. It’s fantastic when it does happen – when I can picture Jefferson being torn between his responsibilities to his daughter Patsy and his passionate love of France, or when I understand that Jefferson and Adams were buddies the way I am with some of my friends I don’t agree with but still love to drink beer with – and books like this are the only way I’ve ever gotten there.
Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James – This is a fantastic, please read it and then we can talk about how everyone is an asshole. I thought it might be a frivolous read, but it’s actually a scholarly, philosophical little book with strong ties to a variety of schools of thought. I read The Psychopath Test last summer, and I will say that there seems to be an overlap in the way James describes assholes and the way Ronson describes psychopaths – but either way, it’s fascinating to read about what makes people tick. Even horrible people.
How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton – This was given to me as a gift, along with Cloud Atlas. I was crazy excited to get Cloud Atlas and didn’t realize that this was the book that was going to get all up in my heart.
I have a feeling that it is fodder for several posts, since Botton and Proust cover all sorts of topics, from happiness to sensitivity to overly-attached families to socializing, many of which are things that I’ve spent hours and hours paying someone to help me figure out.
But I was immediately and completely drawn in by the first anecdote. A 1920s Paris newspaper, L’Intransigeant, posed questions for celebrities to answer. One of the questions they asked was this:
An American scientist announces that the world will end, or at least that such a huge part of the continent will be destroyed, and in such a sudden way, that death will be the certain fate of hundreds of millions of people. If this prediction were confirmed, what do you think would e its effects on people between the time when they acquired the aforementioned certainty and the moment of cataclysm? Finally, as far as you’re concerned, what would you do in this last hour?
Many of the celebrity responses were exactly as you might expect. They suggested that people would go to church, go to the bedroom, do those things a person might do if there are no long-term consequences. Proust’s response, though, was a perfect example of modern stoicism:
I think that life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it – our life – hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.
But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X., making a trip to India.
The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.
This is exactly a thing that I’ve been trying to work into my life, to believe on a fundamental level, and every reminder that comes from the outside is precious and useful.
So those three books are my current companions. What should I read next? Suggestions welcome every second of every day.