The Epicurean Life

June 18, 2019

I am currently working my way through Montaigne’s Essays and I reminded of my 2013 review of “The Swerve: How The World Became Modern” by Stephen Greenblatt, the John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard.  I think it bears repeating.

The Swerve” tells the story of the re-discovery in 1417 of a long poem in Latin by Lucretius called “On The Nature of Things” which, the author claims, led to a flowering of the humanist movement, to a modern scientific view of reality, and to the disintegration of (or at least a serious challenge to) the accepted world view of the Catholic Church.  Enormous claims, and the author does a fine job of defending them.

Lucretius’ poem is a discourse on the philosophy promulgated by Epicurus (341-270 BCE), that life should be led without any fear of death, that the pursuit of personal well-being should be the prime motivator of one’s existence, and that all life and all things are composed of “atoms” that collide and coalesce and then disaggregate once again upon death.


The Epicurean belief that there is no creation, the universe is eternal, that death is the final end, that there is no afterlife would prove to be a major challenge for the Church, a challenge they met with both cruelty and disdain.  It is from their deliberate twisting of these teachings that most people today consider Epicureanism to be a form of gluttony and greed and little more.

The first half of the book gives an excellent background to the Europe of the late medieval period, discusses the growth of humanism through the re-discovery of Latin and Greek texts, and follows the life of Poggio Bracciolini, a Papal secretary who found, copied and circulated a manuscript of Lucretius’ De rerum natura.

The second half describes the Epicureanism of Lucretius in some detail and it is worth noting the major points:

  • Everything is made of invisible particles that are eternal, infinite in number and are in motion in an infinite void
  • Nature ceaselessly experiments
  • The universe was not created for or about humans
  • Humans are not unique
  • The soul dies; there is no afterlife; there are no angels, demons or ghosts
  • All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and are invariably cruel
  • The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain
  • The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion
  • Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder

The book then travels forward through history to show the extent of the poem’s influence.   Early humanists, such as Giordana Bruno, were burnt at the stake for preaching its beliefs.  Thomas More wrote Utopia as a direct attack on Lucretian Epicureanism, while Lucretius was the direct inspiration of Botticelli’s Primavera.  Montaigne’s Essays are infused with epicureanism, and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a materialist masterpiece, even mentioning “little atomi” in its description of Queen Mab. Gallileo was clearly influenced by the poem,and the Puritan Lucy Hutchinson wrote an early English translation.

Perhaps the most famous political influence was in the work of Thomas Jefferson, a self-confessed Epicurean, who added “…the pursuit of happiness” as one of the three inalienable rights of all people.

This was a fascinating read.


What’s Become of Crime Fiction?

April 26, 2019

Long time readers will perhaps recall my fondness for crime novels, police procedurals, and the like. I have written previously here about my enjoyment of Laurence Gough, Joe Nesbo, P.D. James, and others.  It is a type of fiction that has changed over the years, as both society and technology have changed, and yet the genre continues to be maligned and treated as an underclass in some quarters.

Over at Crime Reads they got together this year’s Edgar Awards nominees and asked them how the genre has changed and what they see for the future of the crime novel.  The article is full of interesting material, but I was struck by a few snatches of conversation.  For example, Lisa Black half complained that “books now need to be pictured as blockbuster movies with constant action.” This linked well with Pete Hautman’s assertion that

“today’s readers are looking for a more immersive experience, and authors are putting more effort into backstory and world-building to accommodate that desire. It is not enough anymore to build a story on a puzzle and a personality.

I agree with Jacqueline Winspear:

“I think there’s more and more mystery fiction being written that … could equally be described as powerful novels covering the political, environmental and social issues of today.”

Joe Nesbo’s novels are a perfect illustration, and confirm Dianne Freeman’s claim that:

“The truth is you can’t write crime fiction without examining the human condition and the society of a place or time. If a writer doesn’t understand the very elements that led someone to desperation, to the ultimate bad choice of taking another life, he can never write a convincing antagonist. Villains are not just bad people, they’re often in an untenable situation and see no other way out.”

If you have the slightest interest in this kind of literature, this article will be of value as a worthwhile read.

For Nabokov

April 22, 2019

One hundred years ago today, on his twentieth birthday, Vladimir Nabokov arrived in Athens after he and his family had escaped from revolutionary Russia.  He would never see his homeland again.  Over the next 20 years, he and his family moved restlessly from Greece to England to Berlin, and finally to America, barely escaping the Nazis.

Nabokov’s amazing story is brilliantly told in the long read: “Vladimir Nabokov, Literary Refugee” by Stay Schiff. I will not reduce that article’s many charms by attempting a precis:  It is well worth the reading.

But this is a fine time and place to note that Vladimir Nabokov is one of the five authors I could not do without. As with each of the others — James Joyce, Dylan Thomas, John Dos Passos, and Joseph Conrad — I have read and reread all of his works in English, without tiring of them. There are times when other authors are my favourite of the day (Irving, usually, or Brautigan), but I always return to the Big Five.

It must be time again for Pale Fire or Ada, and then perhaps the USA trilogy. That would make for a fine summer.


Gabriel Garcia Marquez

April 17, 2019

Today is the fifth anniversary of the death of the great writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Back in 2013 I wrote about the last book of his that I read:

This week’s book was the masterly novella called “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” by Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It is a slim volume (just 117 pages) that I wolfed down in two return trips on the #20 bus to the library.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Written in the first person, Garcia Marquez tells the story of an unnamed 90-year old man, a writer of sorts who suddenly falls in love with a thirteen year old virgin whom he has procured from an ancient madame as a birthday present to himself.  His love is unrequited and unconsummated (his choice) but changes his world completely.

This is a remarkable paean to old age, to the process of ageing, to unexpected love, to music, to solitude and desire. It is the work of a true master of his craft and I loved it.

It is devastatingly sad to know that there will never be more books by this extraordinary artist.  However, with bated breath, I await the Netflix adaptation of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Books Read in Q1 2019

April 2, 2019

These are the books I managed to squeeze in this last three months:


Barrington Moore jr: “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy”

Downing, Taylor:  “1983: Reagan, Andropov, and a World on the Brink

Laura Shapiro: “Something From the Oven: Reinventing Dinner in 1950s America”

Ursula K. LeGuin:  “No Time to Spare

Jack Ashby: “Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects”

Fred Thirkwell and Bob Scullion: “Greetings From British Columbia

Richard Wrangham: “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human

Sam Wiebe: “The Last of the Independents

Sam Wiebe: “Invisible Dead





It’s Ferlinghetti Day!

March 24, 2019

Source: Stacey Lewis

Today is the 100th birthday of poet, publisher, and artist Lawrence Ferlinghetti, possibly best known as the founder in 1953 of City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco that was essentially the home of the Beat literature and poetry movement.  The City has declared today to be Lawrence Ferlighetti Day.

And The Rich Get Richer….

March 15, 2019

Back in January, I reported on an Author’s Guild report that showed the average income for a full time writer in the US in 2017 was just $20,300.  Of course, averages are a function of the highest and the lowest figures available.

Literary Hub has compiled a list of the high numbers over the last ten years. These are the estimated incomes of the top writers since 2008:

1. James Patterson : $836 million
2. J. K. Rowling : $546 million
3. Stephen King : $259 million
4. Danielle Steel : $231 million
5. John Grisham : $192 million
6. Jeff Kinney : $165 million
7. E. L. James (Tie) : $153 million
7. Janet Evanovich (Tie) : $153 million
9. Nora Roberts : $128 million
10. Suzanne Collins : $114 million
11. Dan Brown : $111 million
12. Dean Koontz : $101 million
13. Rick Riordan : $91.5 million
14. Stephenie Meyer : $75 million
15. Ken Follett : $68 million
16. George R. R. Martin : $60.5 million
17. Veronica Roth (Tie) : $52 million
18. Bill O’Reilly (Tie) : $52 million
19. Nicholas Sparks : $46 million
20. John Green : $45 million
21. Tom Clancy : $35 million
22. David Baldacci : $26 million
23. Paula Hawkins : $23 million
24. Gillian Flynn : $22 million
25. Michael Wolff : $13 million

Extraordinary numbers, I think. They prove the power of TV and movies to vastly expand the earning capacity of the novels, especially those in series.

And they show, as if we needed more evidence, that the inequality of rewards inherent in capitalism are just as prevalent in cultural industries as in any other.