Alain de Botton

Alain de BottonAlain de Botton is the author of six books, three of them ostensibly novels: On Love, The Romantic Movement and Kiss and Tell. His first non-fiction book, How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel, was an international bestseller and was published in 20 languages. He has also written The Consolations of Philosophy and recently has published The Art of Travel. Alain de Botton was born in Zurich, Switzerland and educated in Switzerland and England. He lives in London and has a teaching post at London University and a regular column in The Independent on Sunday. His next book, Status Anxiety, is tentatively scheduled for publication in 2004.

The Art Of Travel is divided into sections on Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art and Return.

ROBERT BIRNBAUM: You at one time wrote fiction.

ALAIN DE BOTTON: Uh huh.

RB: Have you given it up?

AB: Pretty much. I wrote fiction that wasn’t really fiction. It was sold as fiction. I wrote essayistic stuff.

RB: I read Kiss & Tell. That was essayistic?

AB: Well, yes. I think so. Really, it was a reflection on different ideas. The point was not the plot so much as the ideas in it.

RB: Well, it more closely resembles fiction than what you have gone on to write since then.

AB: Exactly. Nevertheless, it wasn’t totally straight fiction, and I suppose I was just trying to move closer to what I felt was where my real interests lay. Which is in a non-fiction structure but which can allow for a certain amount of personal digressions and descriptions and some of the things that tend to belong in a novel.

RB: Where are your books placed in bookstores?

AB: All over the place. The philosophy book is in the philosophy section.

RB: Is The Consolations of Philosophy a philosophy book?

AB: Well, it doesn’t belong under philosophy as defined by the Anglo American 20th century view of philosophy. It certainly isn’t philosophy from that point of view. But it is philosophy as defined by the man in the street and Socrates. There is a striking congruence between what the man in the street and what Socrates seemed to think that philosophy is and the current professorial view is slightly out there.

RB: And the Proust book is filed under literary criticism?

AB: It tends to be. Or else it is shelved next to Proust.

RB: I ask you this because when I have talked to Jonathan Raban—if you want to fire him up—just tell him you think he is a great travel writer.

AB: Right. What does he think he is?

RB: I don’t recall he has made a declaration. I assume he sees himself as a writer. Tell me about The Art of Travel. Was there another title considered?

AB: Not really. I was searching for a title for a while and then the title came to me.

RB: Searching for the title when you began, as you were writing, when you were finished?

AB: As I was writing. Really the idea for the book— it wasn’t that I set out with the idea that I’m going to cover the theme of travel. What I wanted to do was to cover certain feelings that we have in certain places, the psychology of places. That could be the subtitle. I was looking around for a form in which to gather together these thoughts and it seemed to me that travel is one of the times that we experience different feelings about different places. So that’s really the unity. I would get annoyed—well not annoyed—I’d think that people would miss the point if they said, "But you haven’t covered packing." I hadn’t covered the impact of modern travel on the environment. I’m not trying to cover all aspects of travel. I’m really looking at particular aspects of it.

RB: Is the book shelved in travel sections of bookstores?

AB: I don’t know because it hasn’t been out long enough. It’s still on the front tables. It will probably end up under travel.

RB: Did you know the shape of this book when you began writing it?

AB: Pretty much. There was a long period when the book wasn’t a book. Normally, I go through a long period and even years when I just jot things down in a notebook. Eventually I say, "Well what have we got here?" And then the structure works itself out pretty quickly. Then I slot things in. There was an additional chapter on the Past. It got chopped out.

alain de bottonRB: The Past? That’s one chapter?

AB: (laughs) Exactly.

RB: What do you think of the assertion that all writing is travel writing?

AB: Right. There is a weird way in which modern publishing has put the word travel writing on anything that isn’t a story and is really about places. The description of place has gone into travel writing. But travel writing goes into so many different strands—I can see why Jonathan Raban might get annoyed— the sort of classic travel writing is the heroic journey, "How I Climbed the Himalayas." The Paul Therouxish type of thing, which isn’t necessarily what one wants. Sebald, in a way, wrote travel books. The Rings of Saturn is in a way a travel book. All of these things depend on what association one has around a genre. But there are certainly ways in which the Sebald book might fit uncomfortably under some definitions of travel at which point one just has to stretch that word travel or abandon it and invent another kind—call it topographical literature or whatever it happens to be.

RB: How have your books been received in the USA? Critically acclaimed and commercially…

AB: Right. What has happened to me? Well, my first three books attracted very little attention indeed, in the United States. They sold in extremely modest quantities. I think people didn’t understand at all what was going on. At all. Then I wrote How Proust Can Change Your Life. There was a huge fuss and everyone said it was fantastic, and it sold in huge quantities, and I couldn’t put a foot wrong. Then The Consolations of Philosophy came out, and I was a complete idiot and what was I doing. The book sold in huge quantities. Critically, I was absolutely trashed in America. I wasn’t, particularly, anywhere else. But it seemed that I clearly hit on some taboo in a way, that to me, was utterly mysterious. What was the problem? Then with this book things were going well until this morning, the New York Times decided I was a complete idiot, all over again. Until then, actually everyone had been very nice.

RB: Jennifer Egan in the New York Observer loved the book.

AB: Others had been nice, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Seattle Post….

RB: Who wrote the NYT review?

AB: That Japanese lady.

RB: I wonder if the reason Consolations of Philosophy was critically rejected here was because the homegrown philosophy of the USA is pragmatism, which eschews 19th century models of philosophical systems?

AB: With all due respect, I don’t think that’s at all the reason. The real reason is that it was felt by highbrow critics to be uncomfortably close to the dumb side of America. So that there is this terrific fear on the highbrow coterie, "Where is that line between the good guys and Hollywood, the bad guys, Disney etc.?" I think with the Proust book they felt, "Here’s a guy, he is actually flirting with the idea he is lowbrow, but actually he’s clearly high brow. P-r-o-s-t, P-r-u-s-t, we don’t know how the word is pronounced, but clearly this must be highbrow even though he’s playing around." So they went along with the joke. And suddenly I come along with The Consolations of Philosophy, which was written in a very similar way, but somehow people felt, "Well, actually he’s gone too far." So this is like Who Moved My Cheese, Tuesdays with Morrie, or whatever that guy is.

RB: Philosophy for Dummies?

AB: Exactly. So there was that charge. It surprised me as a European. Here I am being accused of dumbing down America. This was on the part of Americans who presumably had their philosophical training in that rather austere analytic school of philosophy. Emerson’s view of philosophy has disappeared from the American campus. You could not now take an Emersonian view of philosophy. That was a kind of irony because the guiding figure behind The Consolations of Philosophy is, in a way, Emerson. But Emerson has disappeared off the curriculum. His style and the idea of a democratic language with which to address ordinary issues has disappeared. In the reception to my book one can make a mini history of American intellectual attitudes.

RB: What’s being taught now. Ordinary language? Logical positivism?

AB: Essentially, it’s analytic philosophy. That’s the style. They could be doing the Philosophy of Literature but in an analytical way.

What I wanted to do was to cover certain feelings that we have in certain places, the psychology of places. That could be the subtitle.

RB: In The Art of Travel, you use a graphic device in front of each chapter where you have thumbnail photos of the persons and places that are discussed in that chapter. Though there were not a lot of quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche, they were significant. Any reason you didn’t have a photo of him?

AB: He crops up twice.

RB: But they were significant quotes.

AB: Yes, they were. I don’t know, I guess I had a primary guide in most of the chapters, and so there are other people who are brought in to make little points. I didn’t want to say everyone who is mentioned gets a picture. So I wanted to have this primary guide. I can’t read too much into it.

RB: At what point did you come across J.K. Huysman’s novel A Rebours [Against Nature]?

AB: I’d read that book long ago.

RB: I found his character, Duc des Esseintes, who you describe as effete and misanthropic, hilarious and certainly a provocative one to introduce into your own reflections.

AB: He’s a great character. It’s a weird and wonderful book.

RB: In what curriculum would one have read that book? Is Huysmans a well-known writer?

AB: He is a very well-known French writer. Every French school kid…

RB: Every one who reads French…well, that would exclude me.

AB: He’s not very well known in the English-speaking world. But he is part of that whole decadent movement at the end of the 19th century. Proust loved him and there are other connections…

RB: Your speculations and ruminations as presented in The Art of Travel seem so, for lack of a better word, spontaneous. For that reason, I find it hard to think about how you knew the structure and so forth when you started.

AB: Maybe it’s because the book had a very long gestation period. I have been thinking about this book ever since I wrote the Proust book [1996]. It was always a file, it was called places and random thoughts on places. For a long, long time it was sort of bubbling away. Maybe it reflects that. Also, what I wanted to do after having written the preceding books, which I felt were very controlled books in which I was trying and focusing closely on a line of an argument, not putting myself there at all—I wanted to be more chatty and digressive and give it a little more air to breathe. I think that’s something that I’d like to do generally more of in my books.

RB: That was Jennifer Egan’s criticism of this book. That is, she wanted more of your views and digressions.

bottonAB: Yes and I agree with that. That’s very right.

RB: I was amused when you related the tiff you and your traveling companion had over two portions of creme de caramel in Barbados. It seemed strange that two adults would have such a conflict and that you would report it.

AB: I think writing the book I felt an anxiety, "Maybe this is just too weird? Too trivial? Too something or other?"

RB: In citing that instance? Or just all the personal digressions?

AB: I think I lost confidence in my own experiences and descriptions. I think Jennifer Egan is right that what is wrong with the book is that there isn’t enough of me. Really, I’d like to write another book which would be called Everyday Beauty, a collection of descriptions of the beauty of certain things. Sunlight through trees or pavement on a hot summer day, whatever it is. Very closely observed, very personally written essays and in a way this book was getting me there. So look out for a book called Everyday Beauty in about 4 years time.

RB: Not The Art of Travel. Part II?

AB: No, not The Art of Travel Part II.

RB: Let’s talk about the sublime. You introduce this notion as a kind of substitute for traditional religious worship in the 19th century.

AB: The sublime is a feeling provoked by certain kinds of landscape that are very large, very impressive and dangerous. Places like the wide-open oceans, the high mountains, the polar caps. The Sinai Desert, the Grand Canyon. These places do all sorts of things to us. It’s interesting that around the end of the 18th century, people started to say that the feeling that these places provoke in us is a recognizable one and universal one—and a good one. This feeling was described as the feeling of the sublime. There are all sorts of theories about what exactly is needed to have the experience of the sublime. But gathering them all together, essentially what lies at the center of the experience is a feeling of smallness. You are very small and something else is very big and dangerous. You are very vulnerable in the face of something else. Of course, the other thing that tends to make you feel very small and vulnerable is God, traditionally, in our culture. There is an intriguing synchronicity between the rise of the idea of the sublime and the decline of organized religion. The way many people speak of landscape as of the late 18th century is often in quasi-religious tones or actively religious tones. So if one thinks about people like Thomas Cole going out and painting the American West what they are saying and seeing is the hand of God in Nature. The question I was looking at in my chapter [On the Sublime] is, "What is so nice about feeling so small? What’s the point?" To summarize it very brutally, I think there is a way in which daily life, city life might make us feel quite small. You talk to the doorman at a smart hotel, he might make you feel small. The Grand Canyon also says, "You are a little speck of dust on the face of the Universe." The Grand Canyon says it in a nice way. Or in an awe-inspiring way, in a way that enables us to come to terms with our limitations in a very appealing and gracious way. For many people encounters with sublime places are ways of coming to terms with how small we are in ways are not depressing but actually inspiring, "I am small but in a Universe that is very mighty but also very beautiful." It’s a willing surrender of one’s claims to immortality, to strength, to knowledge, to what ever it is. One can say, "Yes the thing is much bigger than me." But because it’s so beautiful, so impressive, one doesn’t do so grudgingly. It’s a gracious acceptance.

RB: Not to be confused with an exclamation like, "Terrific!", "Sublime!"?

AB: Right. That’s become a decadent use of the word like, "Dessert was sublime." It’s an interesting example of the way that philosophers or writers can define a very particular mood for a particular kind of occasion and give it a word. Presumably, if one wanted to go around coining new words, one could have a word for the feeling of being inside a new car and the smell of a new car. Or being on a porch on a summer’s day. But philosophers have done it only to invent the word sublime.

RB: Who was it that talked about "family destroying emotions"?

AB: Wordsworth.

RB: That seemed so accurate and prescient for someone writing in the 19th century.

AB: I agree. Sometime I think these things are much more of today. Most things that are going on now got going in the 19th century, Particularly in Britain as the first industrial nation. So much of what Wordsworth says about urban life…what interested me about Wordsworth was that here’s a man looking at the benefits of nature not from the way we ordinarily look at it now. Which is that nature is a great place to stretch your legs and get lungfulls of fresh air— an aerobic view of the benefits of nature. There also the psychological view, nature is good for your soul. Which is laughably antiquated in away. It sounds bizarre, "I’m going into nature for my soul." People would think that’s ridiculous. I think it’s a lovely idea and, of course, very true. It’s odd that we have lost the ability talk about nature in those ways. I think it can be very helpful to go back to Wordsworth just to recover a sense of how normal it was in 1810 to talk about one’s soul and the effect of stress on one’s soul. It’s become a much more embarrassing thing to talk about. It is a more general feature of our inability to talk about things that seem a little bit mystical. It’s our very practical approach to things. It’s very unpsychoanaltic to speak about nature in that way. So it doesn’t fit the modern vocabulary very well. That was a big challenge for me in even conceiving of the book. I realized how rusty we have become speaking about places. I did really have to look back at the poets of the past and the painters of the past to recover a sense of how seriously people took landscapes. We can only talk about landscapes nowadays in an ecological point of view. We say it’s a pity that nature is spoiled but we rarely say why nature matters. We simply take it for granted and then we come up with global warming why nature is good or exercise for the kids. Which is all well and good, but we are missing the main reason.

RB: Aren’t we just affirming something self-evident like, Nature is good because it’s good? What else do you say?

It struck a real chord among puzzled travelers, people who had secret agonies about their travels and that hadn’t found a forum in which to discuss their thoughts about travel.

AB: I would say that nature is good for our soul, not just nature is good. And nature is good because it’s a realm that goes on independently of us. What we like about nature is its otherness, its foreignness. There is a terrific anxiety when we think about covering the whole world in concrete. We will see that the world reflects back our image all the time. There won’t really be the foreign. This is anxiety that travelers feel generally. Coca-Cola will be smiling back at us everywhere we go. So it’s a reverse narcissistic fear. Instead of everything reflecting back out image and that’s a good thing. It’s a fear that everything will reflect our image and that’s a frightening thing. It’s a longing that things remain separate from the way they are done in our own district.

RB: Your own escape back to nature was a three-day visit to the English Lake District. What was the name of the inn?

AB: The Mortal Man Inn. A deliberately short trip to try and capture some of the paradoxes of modern travel, which tends to be so brief. Also to try to draw an optimistic message. That’s really the impact of places isn’t just the amount of time one spends in a place. That’s the rather nice idea you get in Wordsworth. He’ll say, "This poem was written at 5 in the afternoon on this bridge in this year." And that specificity suggests that 5 minutes can sometimes stick in mind in an extraordinarily powerful way. That is true. There are images that stick in our minds and we play them back, again and again in later life.

RB: Are there national characteristics about how people see place and the way they travel from place to place?

AB: I’m sure there are. I think there are a lot of similarities in one what one could generally call the western attitude to places. Essentially what you find is a respect for nature all over the developed world combined with an absolute desecration of nature. On the whole, there has long been an attraction to sunshine and to the idyll of the desert island. It has a huge hold on the western imagination since the 16th century. The idea of warmth and plenty and sex. I’m sure there are some differences. Americans get less time to travel. They travel a lot more in their own country—their country is much more diverse.

RB: Americans don’t want to meet any foreigners.

AB: Well, there are an awful lot of them travelling abroad as well, but yeah.

RB: You didn’t make much of the fact that signs at the train station in the Lake District were also in Japanese. Is that true of other English train stations?

AB: The Lake District has a surprising number of Japanese people wandering around and the reason for that is they love Wordsworth. There is an absolute Wordsworth cult in Japan. This I found out only later, actually, since writing the book. One could say that there is some similarities between Zen attitudes towards nature and Wordsworth’s. There’s actually a book called Zen and Wordsworth.

RB: In the chapter, "Traveling Places", you mention painter Edward Hopper’s frequent and regular car trips around the USA, citing his 5 cross-country journeys between 1941 and 1955. How did you come to choose Hopper as one of the guideposts of your book?

AB: I was attracted to Hopper—I’d been attracted to Hopper for a long, long time—I remember reading a biography of him by Gail Levin. When I was writing the book, I wanted to go back and deepen my sense of what Hopper was about. It just leapt out at me. I became curiously fascinated. The biographer said this was the first time he bought a car and then he drove around and I added it all up and it seemed like a huge number of trips. It seemed worth mentioning. I’m not sure why. I was interested myself, and I just got carried away in this slightly obsessive way, working out just how many trips he had made.

RB: It gave me a whole new view of Hopper. To look at his paintings— granted I didn’t know much of his work—I wouldn’t have thought he needed to travel at all. The mood seems so interior. Solitary individual in a sparse exterior.

AB: Absolutely. For me and for so many people, parts of the American traveling landscape can be called Hopperesque and one knows—he’s really defined a certain feeling. It’s always a great achievement for an artist to be able to so capture something, that you go around and say, "That’s Hopperesque."

RB: I was reminded, also, that this country is too big to fall in to the kind of hum-drum homogeneity of imagery that we associate with smaller places.

alain de bottonAB: I’m sure that’s true. I think generally the world is too big a place to succumb to this fear of homogeneity.

RB: Really?

AB: I mean this idea that the whole world is going to become the same. We have two fears. One fear is that everything is the same and the other is that everything is completely different. In other countries people fry their children and make terrorists all the time: the twin poles. I think neither is true, completely. What’s interesting as a European is to discover the regional quality of the United States.

RB: So we shouldn’t fear the advance of McDonald’s into Paris and other places?

AB: No, these are very, very superficial differences. To take a tragic example, there was a McDonald’s in Bosnia, many branches of McDonald’s. Everyone was eating hamburgers but then picked up guns and killed each other. It doesn’t mean that everyone thinks the same thing.

RB: So these places are not American outposts. They become localized.

AB: Exactly. When Indian singers do take-offs of Madonna suddenly Madonna songs become Indian songs, in a way. You get these wonderful transmutations. This has always happened through out history.

RB: I’m very interested in Cuba, and frequently I hear people express an urgency to travel there before "it all changes." A great belief that it will be some kind of Disneyland, of course, disregarding that Cuba has a 400-year-old culture. My sense is that a Cuban Disneyland will still be distinctly Cuban.

AB: That’s right. I think there’s a kind of arrogance behind that fear.

RB: How much have you talked about this book in the US?

AB: Just Washington, New York and here. It’s a very short tour.

RB: So how are readers responding to The Art of Travel?

AB: It’s hard to say. I get a sense that similar things are happening here that happened in England. It struck a real chord among puzzled travelers, people who had secret agonies about their travels and that hadn’t found a forum in which to discuss their thoughts about travel. I think, whatever the flaws of the book, it’s enabling some people to do —it’s a place to come and think about things, in a way that very few other books touch on these things.

RB: There are lots of illustrations and not necessarily obvious ones.

AB: All my books have had visual elements. That’s something that my six books have had. What I tried to do in this book was not to have that many pictures but give them a lot of space to breathe and to really show them in their beauty. After all, the book is kind of about beauty.

RB: Why aren’t the images in color?

AB: Cost.

RB: The cover presentation isn’t cheap.

AB: It was. It’s not real leather. It’s actually cheaper. There’s no dust jacket. A book that inspired me just in terms of the visuals was Simon Schama’s Landscape And Memory. It’s a wonderful-looking book. Unfortunately, I don’t think it works at all as a text. It really annoyed me but I loved looking at the table of contents: Wood, Rock, Trees.

RB: I must confess I was never able to digest that book.

AB: It’s a mess. It’s a complete mess. But a very interesting mess. Some books are better as messes than other accomplishments. I loved the illustrations. That book turned me on to all sorts of artists that I hadn’t really discovered. Often they were artists that were considered second rate. What was fun for me was to sniff out some of these so-called second-rate people.

My books superficially are okay and any problems that exist are so large that most editors don’t either have the time or language or critical intelligence to tell me what they are.

RB: What next for you?

AB: I’m actually 3/4 of the way through a book.

RB: Whoa.

AB: Yeah, who knows, it’s not yet done, so it may slow itself down. This is a book called Status Anxiety. It’s looking at the idea of respect and dignity that people want in life and the way that respect and dignity is accorded in relation—mostly in the West— to people’s jobs. And how all sorts of anxieties surround this topic. We are in permanent danger of feeling a shortage of status. What I am very keen to avoid is the discussion of class as traditionally done. I want to steer well clear of that because that seems to completely miss the point of what actually is going on, which is a struggle about status.

RB: What’s your source material for this book?

AB: At one level it’s the history of the United States. So there are many key texts, like de Tocqueville’s tour of America. Adam Smith is very important. A lot of political theorists, Thorsten Veblen, Marx is very important in that story. Rousseau is important. Basically, people who are writing about the huge changes that occur around the middle of the 18th century when industrialization gets going and when the idea of meritocracy comes along. Societies get a lot richer and wealth becomes more important. All of that, I am tackling. God knows what the response will be. I feel it’s a very important topic whatever I make of it.

RB: The focus is the United States?

AB: Britain and the United States. Most of the phenomena were first spotted and clearly articulated there. The United States is an extreme version of tendencies that now exist all over in Western countries.

RB: Your book is published first in Britain. Is there an American edit?

AB: Yes. I have an editor, Dan Frank, at Pantheon who has his thoughts on the book and will direct things in one way or another.

RB: So are there any differences in the British and American editions?

AB: No. I sort of harmonize. I’m not heavily edited and never really have been. My books superficially are okay and any problems that exist are so large that most editors don’t either have the time or language or critical intelligence to tell me what they are. So to date they have all said, "Lovely. Change this comma and that." Which is fair enough because to work properly as an editor would mean devoting 2 years of one’s life to a book. Editor’s have on the whole 5 days or 3. Dan Frank is a wonderful guy, and I like his taste and am honored to figure in his taste.

RB: I am trying to get a clearer picture of how the author-editor relationship has evolved in the last few decades.

AB: I think you can have a very close and very harmonious relationship with an editor without that editor shaping the book, absolutely, by saying, this paragraph or whatever. I haven’t experienced it but it’s possible that others have.

RB: In between books what else do you do?

AB: I made a TV series of the philosophy book for British TV. It was fun. I do journalism. I do teaching. And other things that one gets invited to do as a writer. Strange and wonderful things. I try to make writing my own books the centerpiece.

RB: Are you a well-known writer in Britain? Do you cause scandals?

AB: No, I don’t cause scandals. I try to keep a low profile.

RB: How far ahead to look in terms of the writing you want to do or what you want to write about?

AB: I have ideas and thoughts. I know certain strands of my interests now. Maybe a little better than I did a few years ago. I know that I have what I could pretentiously call an aesthetic strand. I can imagine writing a number of books in that strand. Things like that book on Everyday Beauty that I told you about. Also things on architecture and beauty. I would like to write a book on how to decorate your home but would not really be on how to decorate your home.

RB: So it would talk about paints and such things?

AB: A little bit. It would also be about the environment that we live and its impact on us. I’d also like to write in my political strand in which Status Anxiety slots into that. I’d like to write about the educational system. Work. I’d like to write about Utopian ideas, making the world a better place. These kinds of things. What else? I’d like to write about marriage, even though I’m not married.

RB: Would you put your journalism in a collection?

AB: I’m very keen not to do that. I’m aware that those pieces were not written…I’m very lazy as a journalist. I will do journalism for money and I won’t do it well. I’ll just knock it out. I don’t consider it sincere. When it’s sincere, it’s got to be really sincere. I can’t understand people who can accept to do a 5000-word very sincere piece just simply prompted by an editor in the middle of a working schedule. I can’t get my head around that. Either I’ll write 500 words—somebody calls me up and I’ll just turn that around quickly and it’ll be glib and stupid or else it’s the books.

RB: There’s a title for the collection, Glib and Stupid.

AB: Exactly. But I’d want those things to die and disappear. They’re called paying the rent.

RB: Anyone you would like to write a biography of?

AB: I’d like to write a kind of essay on Stendahl, a wonderful man. It wouldn’t be as standard biography. I’d like to write about why I like him. He seems to me to be a man whose life is a kind of model in certain ways. I’d like to write a hagiography.

RB: In the style of your Proust book?

AB: Not really, but writing essays about certain features of the man that are admirable. A series of essays about what’s good about the man. Generally, when I look at other people I think what’s good, what’s the point what’s attractive here. I wouldn’t want to write a biography where I had to write everything. I would only want to say why I thought something was valuable.

RB: I have enjoyed some of the recent biographical essays that are part of the Penguin Lives series.

AB: You want the material to be arranged in some way according to some logic other than simply chronology. Chronology is the dumbest of all ways of arranging. Which is what makes history on the whole so tedious. What really one wants is not "This happened, then that happened." My favorite history books are the ones historians hate. Books like the Decline of the Middle Ages by Huizinga or Burkhardt’s History of The Renaissance. Bad history in the sense of slanted history. Burkhardt isn’t trying to tell everything about the Renaissance. He has a weird angle to push on how Renaissance man came along.

RB: You would like Howard Zinn‘s A People’s History of The United States.

AB: Right, right. Sort of bad history but interesting. Opinionated. That’s the problem of the academic pressure to always be scientific, to always be fair. It leads to deathly boredom.

RB: Whatever the merits of McCullough’s Adams book, it’s encouraging that there was so much interest. Perhaps a new recognition of the narrative richness of history.

AB: Right. And it’s about explaining today. That’s the key thing. That’s what people want. That’s what I want. There’s a real abdication of a certain kind of duty by people. I hope that this doesn’t seem arrogant. I see a lot of my friends who have no time to read at all. They have very busy lives and jobs. I sit around and often have nothing to do and sit in study and twiddle my toes. I think there is a kind of duty for the bookish to make some sense of this for the rest of the population that doesn’t have time to grapple with this.

RB: Claims it doesn’t have time I guess because of the heavy responsibilities of being consumer units.

AB: I like to think that people are misguided rather than evil and that they just haven’t found a way. I was taught at supposedly elite universities, and I had a terrible time. I didn’t learn anything. I feel quite strongly, how easy it is to be bored by culture.

RB: That’s a good place to stop. Thank you.

AB: Thank you.

Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing

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