by James Wallace Harris, Monday, February 12, 2018
Some days you just want to live in another era. Statistically, we live in the best of times. If you’ve read The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, you should feel safer about war, crime, and violence. Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress promises to make us feel better about everything. Bill Gates is calling it his all-time favorite book. Yet, 2017 was a very depressing year for me because of Donald Trump. 2018 should be even more depressing because there’s no sign that Trump will be impeached or quit.
Whenever I watch the NBC Nightly News it makes me wish I had a time machine. Sadly, I can’t afford one. When I read Global Citizen I feel like I should be doing something to help the world because that site shows how people can make a big difference. But to be honest, I’m old, set in my ways, and don’t want to get out in the world anymore. When I look at Congress I see a rabid pack of old white guys snarling and snapping at each other to shape America with their narrowminded beliefs. It’s time for women, youth, and diversity to take the reins.
I don’t think the world needs input from another old white dude, so I’m retreating from the rat race by reading books. What’s hilarious, those books are mostly by old dead white guys. Maybe it’s like the old Tarzan movies, and we’re like a dying elephant knowing where to go to our secret graveyard.
I’ve been time traveling back to the late 16th-century by listening to The Complete Essays of Montaigne translated by Donald M. Frame. When Montaigne was still in his thirties he retired by retreating to a tower in his castle, bringing a desk, chair, and a thousand books. There Montaigne contemplated reality by comparing his personal experiences to what he read. Along the way, he invented the personal essay, which is why I consider Montaigne the Patron Saint of Bloggers.
Montaigne remains essential reading for jaded bookworms because he explains the usefulness of all those dead white writers of history, the ones remembered in The Western Canon by Harold Bloom. Listening to Montaigne makes me understand why 19th-century intellectuals were so big on classical studies. By the way, if you have a detailed scholarly bent, love annotations, and notes on textual variations, you might prefer the M. A. Screech translation. Listening to the Frame translation makes me feel like Montaigne is talking at me. It’s very smooth.
And I highly recommend you listen to Montaigne on audio because he’s a rambler, and rambles on for over a thousand pages. But, if you prefer to hold a book in your hands, I recommend the Everyman’s Library edition of The Complete Works, also translated by Frame. It’s easier to hold and has a nifty ribbon bookmark. However, you’re still holding a 1,336-page book. Because there’s no ebook edition with a Frame translation, I’d recommending getting older Cotton/Hazlitt translation from the public domain for your carry around everywhere on your phone edition. Amazon has many 99 cent Kindle editions, but I picked this edition because the text reformats nicely on my phone.
(By the way, I got turned onto Montaigne from reading How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer by Sarah Bakewell.)
When I’m not back in the 16th-century I spend a lot of time in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, either by watching old television shows and movies, or reading old books, or listening to old music. Recently I’ve been listening to a playlist of music from the 1920s and 1930s created from ten volumes in a series called The Big Broadcast.
I’m still having big fun reading through The Great SF Stories #1-25 (1939-1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg. These stories were from the great science fiction pulp magazines. It almost feels like I’m living in 1940 when I read the stories and play music from that year, especially when I get so deep into a tale that I forget it’s 2018, and a maniac runs the country.
I’ve fantasized about redecorating my living room so it only contains furniture and objects that could have existed before WWII. We bought the house my wife grew up in after her parents died, and left the living room unchanged with the old furniture, lamps, and pictures on the wall. I imagine smoking a pipe wearing a smoking jacket while sitting in one of the blue chairs reading a July 1939 issue of Astounding Stories.
Susan did add an antique floor standing radio she bought at an estate sale. We gutted the old equipment from it that didn’t work, but left the knobs and the frequency scale. I could build a computer to hide inside it that played pre-war radio shows and music. I could put mint copies of old books, slick and pulp magazines on the coffee table. Then play Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong while reading and imagine I’m back in the past.
I’d have to concentrate hard not to remember Donald Trump. Actually living in the 1930s would be horrible compared to today. I’m just nostalgic for its pop culture, well some of it. For example, I’d have to make sure I played “All of Me” instead of “Strange Fruit” when listening to Billie Holiday.
Sadly, there is no utopia to escape to. Steven Pinker is right, now is the best of time for humanity. The future is unknown. I hope trends continue and things continue to get better. But as long as Donald Trump is in the news I just can’t imagine it.