Real-Time Book Blogging!

4.02 pm. This week I have received not one, but two copies of Robert Rowland Smith’s book of popular philosophy, Breakfast with Socrates. So I thought I’d better have a look at it. And it occurred to me it might be entertaining to read the opening sections and blog about them in real time. So neat! So contained! I am accompanied here by a cup of white tea with pomegranate and my cat, Hilly, who is performing her usual trick of prowling clumsily in the small amount of space beside me, doing her utmost to dip the tip of her tail in my mug. This practice she varies with rolling on her back, her paws tucked under her chin, to present me with her delectable white tummy. This is a shameless tease, which we both know she has no intention of seeing through.

4.12. Cat momentarily subdued, I turn to the first line of the introduction. It is not promising. ‘Given that Socrates was assassinated by poison, you might think twice before accepting his invitation to breakfast.’ Well, hmmm. You might not want to have breakfast with Socrates’ enemies, if you thought they didn’t like you much either. And you might not want to eat with Socrates if his enemies were there, too. But so long as you didn’t share the contents of his plate, chances are you’d be okay – Socrates was the victim here, after all, and not of poor food hygiene.

4.16. The follow up sentence is no better. ‘Yet what got him killed is exactly what would make him an excellent breakfast companion – his curiosity. He was silenced for asking too many questions, getting up too many people’s noses.’ Now I don’t know about you, but I am not particularly thrilled about being asked a lot of questions at breakfast. My personal idea of an excellent morning companion is someone who maintains a respectful silence and doesn’t clatter the crockery too much. Five lines in and I am in opposition to the author and experiencing a fair amount of sympathy for Socrates’ murderer. Not good.

4.20. A brief pause to consider the implications of reading a book on philosophy by an author whose causality I am already fearing to be screwed. Decide it’s not fair to judge on the opening lines (which are always devils to write) and press on.

4.25. Okay, so the idea is that philosophers per se might be interesting companions to have around because much of their thinking had implications for daily events. Socrates’s line ‘The unexamined life is not worth living’ makes an appearance, as does the pun ‘the same would apply if you were to have a bagel with Hegel or eggs with Bacon.’ Cannot decide whether I like this or find it excruciating.

4.30. ‘Socrates would be just as interested in how much to tip the waiter for serving you the toast and muffins as in whether God exists.’ Feel the urge rising up in me to quibble with this on several counts. Firmly squash it. My inner pedant is clearly out of hand today.

4.32. ‘Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst, becomes your personal shopper and, as you gaze into the fitting-room mirror, let’s you in on the perils of narcissism. While you’re at work, Karl Marx whispers in your ear about how to stop being a wage slave.’ This seems to be a prevalent rhetorical device in contemporary books, the ushering in of famous figures in a virtual reality conjured up by reading. Caroline Goyder’s book of a couple of days ago repeatedly said things like, ‘Here’s Ewan Macgregor to tell you how to remove your inhibitions,’ or some such, and every time it took me a couple of moments to get over the disappointment of registering that actually, he wasn’t here removing my inhibitions at all. I draw the line at Karl Marx whispering in my ear though – that BEARD! Sends a cold shudder down my spine at the thought of its scratchy, yicky, tickly-ness.

4.40. Find I have suddenly lost five minutes in checking my emails, which I didn’t even know I had the intention of doing. Fascinatingly, had a letter from a friend as an attachment because his computer isn’t working, and the letter stopped midway through a sentence. This must be due to the computer glitch but I had to read it a couple of times before it registered that there was no more. Why do these things take time to sink it? Why isn’t it immediately apparent? Where’s Socrates to explain this for me? Must get back to this introduction.

4.42. So we get the picture, big, heavy philosophers, not widely known for their accessibility are plundered for the most user-friendly elements of their theories which are then applied to everyday situations with a fair dose of whimsy. This could be a delight or it could be cringingly twee.

4.46. First chapter: ‘Waking up’. Waking up (until we remember what we’ve woken up to) is always a bit of a delightful surprise, Rowland Smith argues. He considers the act in its widest abstract conception as the dawning of consciousness, with its attendant phenomena of thinking, feeling, sensing, choosing, doing, etc. He also raises the classic philosophical problem of how you know you are awake, as opposed to dreaming. And he has a quick trot through Descartes cogito sum – the realization Descartes came to that if you think, you must exist. This is all quite dancingly done, a sort of shuffle and slide over the top of much philosophical thin ice.

4.53. ‘you become aware of traffic outside your window: perhaps a pneumatic drill decides to join the chorus, or the recycling truck comes by and the clash of broken glass keeps shattering the peace. You curse the noise and sink back into your pillows.’ There’s an awful lot of second person singular in this narrative. You do this…. You do that…. It’s an odd device and one that demands a lot of imaginative compliance on the part of the reader. Whole academic books have been written about it, and I know this because one of my PhD authors, Marguerite Duras, wrote a slim little volume entirely in the second person singular. That book, however, was rather clever because it detailed a dark and sleazy sexual encounter in which ‘you’, the reader, played one of the main protagonists. So one becomes acutely aware of the device, the lure it holds out and one’s internal resistance. Oh no, please, I’m not doing that, the reader thinks. Followed by, oh gosh, well I seem to be doing it, regardless. Whatever will I do next?

5.01. Rowland Smith’s point here, with the traffic noise and all, is to demonstrate Kant’s distrust (Kant is sitting on the end of your bed, by the way) of collective consciousness. Which is to say, just because everybody thinks a thing, it doesn’t mean it’s so. It’s a good point, when group mind is used so heavily nowadays as a tool for decision-making. He cites Copernicus and his theoretical work that suggested the earth went round the sun, which absolutely no one had thought of before.  What, not even a tiny inkling in an astute, mathematically-minded Greek shepherd or two?

5.09. From here we go into a lengthy passage on Christianity and the resurrection. Including a description of Stanley Spencer’s picture of an English village, in which the inhabitants are getting out of their graves in their nightclothes, as if just waking. Good image choice there. My cat returns at this point, surprising me, as I had not realized she’d gone away. She indulges herself in a little cat yoga, then, lost to some mental game, charges off as if ferociously pursued. If I had to make deductions from appearances, I’d say that cats have remarkably little distinction between waking and dreaming, fantasy and reality, and it is nothing to be proud of.

5.16. My attention is wandering somewhat. Rowlands Smith moves from Christianity to Hegel and makes a sophisticated analogy between the three steps of Jesus’s transformation into Christ (alive, dead, reborn) and Hegel’s three-step dialectic (thesis, antithesis, synthesis, only he doesn’t use these terms) to show how the ‘truth’ is most compelling if it comes in three steps and represents a return to something thought lost. It’s well done in its way, but this is all huge blocks of thought and the pedantic part of me wonders what he’s doing with them. But, then again, this is just history of ideas and for most people, they will be ideas they’ve never come into contact with before. It strikes me that all the thinkers and theories referred to so far have been familiar to me, which is both magnificent and sort of tragic. How many hours, weeks, years, have I spent reading in order to reach this point? Best not to calculate it. I bumped into my neighbour yesterday, who has just started an MA in the history of print. She said she was struggling with an uber-theoretical lecturer who was wearying her mind with talk of works of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. ‘Oh, Walter Benjamin,’ I said, recognizing the theory. ‘I never liked him much.’ Benjamin is one of those theorists whose writing is always two steps to the left of intelligibility. ‘I might have known you’d know him,’ my neighbour said. ‘But frankly, the lecturer is the kind of man who could be reading Bob The Builder to me and still make it go over my head.’ That made us both laugh.

5.26. I finish the chapter and decide to call it a day. The last point was actually a very good one. Rowlands Smith suggests that the world we live in has become one that never really sleeps because of two new deities – economic growth and technological innovation. But he surprised me by pointing out how the motivation for this was not just financial, but moral, too. The Protestant work ethic, that insists we be awake and industrious rather than asleep and lazy, does much good but has what he calls ‘unintended consequences’ which he’ll be going on to discuss. Well, that’s a good hook and it will certainly bring me back for another chapter. Given the amount of synthesis that he’s having to do, I’m gently impressed with the book. It’s an easy read, despite the weightiness of the ideas, and the format (whilst a little whimsical for my tastes) provides an unusual take on philosophy and one that promises a bit of fun and interest whatever your level of theoretical knowledge. Real-time blogging is fun, too, although does nothing for my concision. And now I need tea! Snacks! Litlove’s cogito sum: I think, therefore I am constantly distracted by implausible hunger.

(Must acknowledge that I was inspired in part by Jenny’s hilarious post to write this!)

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19 thoughts on “Real-Time Book Blogging!

  1. Hilarious! I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t want to have Socrates over for breakfast either if he’s going to be chattering away and asking questions the whole time. Now as a dinner companion, fine, as long as his enemies aren’t doing the cooking. (They might after all poison the pot and not the plate.)

  2. Both Jenny’s post and yours completely cracked me up! My cat does the exact same thing with the tip of his tale. And I was especially amused by the bit about Karl Marx’s beard :D

  3. So cute! :)

    Have you ever read Alain de Botton? I’m listening to Status Anxiety right now-I really enjoy his ‘life application’ approach to philosophy. And he’s funny-not in a corny, laugh-at-his-jokes out of pity kind of way. Just in a dry way.

  4. Okay, my pedant answers to your pedant. Socrates wasn’t assassinated. He could have chosen some other course that would not have led to his death-exile, renouncing his words-but he willingly chose to stand by his beliefs, which meant he took hemlock of his own free will. (Not that free will meant for the greeks of that time what it has come to mean since.) This is over-dramatization for no point at all, except to say that the most reputed philosopher we know is a martyr. Except that, of course, he never wrote anything down that has survived, so we know him second-hand, which is more like not knowing him. Further, Socrates would not talk about the existence of God, but of Logos, or of the gods. I think I’d dump the book after the first two pages. You are so much more charitable and forgiving.

  5. Hilarious, Litlove! Karl Marx’s beard, Hilly’s imaginary pursuer, Walter Benjamin in the same conversation as Bob the Builder… all this fun wrapped up in your usual intellectual excellence is really delightful to read.

  6. You are such a wonderfully gentle person to read philosophy in such a manner.

    My cats also sit on me when I read, but unfortunately they speedily (claws out) depart when, after and outraged human gargle, the book in question hits the wall. I would not dare hold a hot mug of tea.

  7. I LOVE this! I certainly hope you real-time blog more often. I can see that you read nonfiction with the same sort of skepticism I do (always, of course, comforting to know that others do what I do. Which philosopher would say what about that?). And I am in complete agreement with you about the perfect breakfast companion.

  8. This is great! I feel like there should be more real-time blogging because I chuckled straight through this post! I had the exact same reaction to the bit about why Socrates would be a fun breakfast companion. I think Socrates’s bit about being a gadfly was better. He’s interesting to read about, you know, from a nice safe distance of a few millennia, but I’ve always thought he would have been maddening to meet in person.

  9. What a treat to read along with you (and Hilly) in “real time”!

    I’ve not read much in the philosophical realms of literature, and this might be just the sort of book I could manage. The last bit sounds intriguing…the “unintended consequences” of the Protestant work ethic. Since I’m greatly afflicted with that same work ethic, to my own detriment sometimes, I’m afriad, I’d be interested to see what he has to say on this subject.

    BTW, I prefer silence at breakfast too. Sorry, Socrates.

  10. What a fun post! I’m not sure I can handle this book, though — I think I may stick with your excellent report on it :) It’s those puns — anybody who includes bad jokes like that in a book is someone I don’t think I want to read.

  11. This was so much fun! Hilly and Waldo and Dickens must all have received the same cat instruction manual. I bristled that the author said Socrates was assassinated and JB’s comment sets it straight. And the thought of Kant sitting at the foot of my bed was rather distrubing. However, I think you and I would make fine breakfast companions.

  12. Socrates with my scrambled eggs? I think too much for my fuzzy head in the morning. But it reminds me of something. When Aristotle Onasis hooked up with Jacqueline Kennedy, everyone was shocked. I was waiting for the opportunity to say, “With a name like Aristotle, we couldn’t expect a Platonic relationship.” But I never got the chance. A pearly gem cast away like a used paper cup.

  13. That was so much fun to read. Witty and knowledgable.

    I was going to write that the Protestant work ethic has caused the current pervasive sleep deprivation in the west. But it isn’t as simple as that. We now equate industry with status and that wasn’t the case in 19th century Uk and U.S. which was just as Protestant. At that time business owners and bankers came into work at 10:00, had a long lunch, and left at 3 pm. Their lowly workers worked long hours. But status then was equated with leisure.

  14. Just reading about this book started giving me a headache but I loved your responses. I also wouldn’t want Karl Marx’s beard tickiling me ear and Socrates at breakfast would be a complete pain! Loved the descriptions of your cat, who I’ve just realised (silly me) is the Hilly everyone was referring to. I was thinking that s/he was some famous philosopher who I had never heard of!

  15. Teresa – lol! Yes, I could probably cope with him at dinner, although I might relegate him to lunch and insist we bring our own sandwiches. :)

    Nymeth – what IS it about cats and cups of tea? It can’t be nice to have a peppermint dipped tail! Jenny’s post was so funny I thought I had to have a go at something similar. Marx’s beard looks like an Elizabethan ruff attached to his chin – not nice!! :)

    Eva – Years ago I read his book on Proust, which was enjoyable. Sometimes I like him and sometimes I don’t, which must say more about me than de Botton. I do like what he’s trying to do, though, and the book on status anxiety has risen on my list thanks to your recommendation.

    JB – oh my, I had forgotten entirely that Socrates took poison of his own accord but you are of course perfectly right and your saying it has prompted my memory. It’s just as well that I had forgotten that, or I might not have got further than the first couple of lines myself. That’s really nice of you to attribute my sticking with it to charity, when in retrospect it might have been caused by ignorance, too! :)

    Doctordi – oh thank you for those kind words. It was a very stress-free way to write a post, but on another occasion I might edit it a bit! :)

    Mary – that’s so sweet of you! Hilly almost never puts her claws out (unless you pick her up, then she becomes the proverbial pincushion) but my other cat, Harvey, loves lap sitting and claws away at your knees in his deep contentment. Now THAT really doesn’t go with tea drinking and if I allowed the two to come together, I would be in exactly the same position as you! :)

    Emily – It’s quite a Telecommuter Talk post, really! :) I’m so glad you like your breakfasts quiet – when we finally get all the blog girls together we are going to have such a good time (with respectfully silent early mornings!).

    Jenny – your post was the inspiration! I laughed too at what you said about Socrates being maddening. I couldn’t agree more. It seems that he never let anyone else be right about anything and that kind of person is infinitely tedious! :)

  16. Becca – There are huge areas of philosophy that I know nothing about, and so I will certainly pick this book up again. The bit about the work ethic is going to be concerned (so my husband tells me, as he read this and said airily, oh everyone knows about the disadvantages of the work ethic – don’t you?) with the destruction wrought on the environment, and I guess by analogy the destruction we wreak on our own internal environments if we let our lives get out of balance and never allow play, respite, spaciousness and pointless activities. Very glad to have another vote for silence at breakfast – I simply could NOT manage an animated discussion before 10 am! :)

    Dorothy – ooh I have every sympathy with your feelings about the puns. There’s a lot of alliteration, too, which can have an irritating effect. It’s good to make philosophy more accessible, but not every jolly or humourous device ends up having an enlivening effect! :)

    Stefanie – you are welcome at my house for muesli or pancakes (or indeed whatever you’d prefer) any day! I laughed out loud when you said our cats had read the same instruction manual! Oh I do think that’s so true. I remember the photo of you typing at the computer with one sprawled over your arm, ‘helping’. I had forgotten the facts of Socrates’ death so I was very grateful to JB. Alas, it only makes that beginning worse…..

    Grad – LOL! Oh that is a delight! Thank you for allowing us all to share that one. Isn’t it a shame how the best jokes sometimes fail to get the audience they deserve? I was once discussing ambivalence in a psychoanalytic way in the kitchen with my husband and he was asking whether it was a successful device and I had the joy of replying ‘Well, yes and no.’ How often does an opportunity like that come around?

    Lilian – so true. When I was growing up, the future was all about the prospect of the three-day week, which was going to be the point of technology. Where did it all go wrong? Your comment pinpoints a lost moment in history when the goal of leisure and recreation became the goal of excessive wealth. Now THAT’s something that needs to be reversed.

    Pete – Hilly bats her eyelashes at you in a very coy way as a thank you for thinking she might be a philosophical genius. Alas, I can assure you she is quite brainless, but very cute. I can’t decide whether the book is headache inducing or not. It is in parts, and yet the whole premise is very jolly and whimsical. Some books are very hard to pin down, no?

  17. I really cannot imagine Socrates taking the slightest interest in the wider implications of how much to tip a waiter. I really think this sort of book doesn’t do philosophy much service, in trying to make it “accessible.” Philosophy is philosophy.

    You and Grad reminded me of one of my favorite jokes:

    Q: What’s the difference between ignorance and apathy?
    A: I don’t know, and I don’t care.

  18. (A man says to a woman, “Why is there something instead of nothing?” The woman replies, “If there was nothing you’d still complain!”)

    I recall reading Jostein Gaardner’s _Sophie’s World_, a novel which showed a young girl being educated in philosophy, and thinking that was all right as far as it went, but it was a bit dry, not as humourous as, say, Grad was, and was ‘philosophy lite.’ But a commendable effort. Maybe that would appeal to you, Litlove – though chances are very good you’ve already read it – as a fiction approach to the topic.

  19. David – oh great joke! You and Grad have just trebled my supply of decent jokes based on philosophy. How cool is that? And I know what you mean about the popularisation of philosophy looking like a deformation. I feel there may be middle ground, but that this is perhaps a bit too far in the jaunty direction. It’s hard, I think, to do justice to the subtlety, the beauty and the real complexity of the thought in this format.

    JB – That’s also a good joke but one I think I’ve heard before in a Jewish context – which I imagine the joke has lost en route to become a more widely acceptable one. I have seen Sophie’s World but never read it, mostly because I had such trouble finishing Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. You’ve got me thinking now about philosophy I’ve really enjoyed, but it has to be said, I’ve liked it best in books like Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus. Perhaps I do just like my philosophy straight up, after all! :)

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