We have previously lamented what we lose when we forsake the serendipity of browsing a newspaper or magazine for the stultifying predictability of those custom-tailored electronic round-ups that tell us only what we want to hear. But I was reminded of this point in a somewhat surprising situation recently when I read a book by mistake, and found out I liked it.
How, exactly, does one read a book by mistake? Well, the title of the book is “The Consolations of Philosophy.” I saw the title on Audible.com, the subscription-based audiobook website, and I thought, “Wonderful! I’ve never got around to reading the classic by Boethius, but now I’ll be able to listen to it.” I saw the book attributed to someone named Alain de Botton, but I figured he was the translator.
It turns out that Boethius’s book is “The Consolation of Philosophy.” Just one consolation. The multi-consolation volume by Alain de Bottton is indeed written by him, and not translated at all unless he does his own translations of the philosophers he discusses. And I still don’t know what Boethius’s book is about, but Professor de Botton’s book consists of six pretty good essays on things that tend to bum us out (unpopularity, not having enough money, frustration, inadequacy, a broken heart, and “difficulties”), choosing a philosopher or two for each essay and telling us what philosophy can teach us about the things we really care about.
Anyone who lived through the 1970s is excused for harboring a few doubts about this project, but this is not Jonathan Livingston Seagull Goes to Harvard. In six fairly lively essays, de Botton gives us a window on modern life as it might be seen by Socrates, Epicurus, Seneca, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Remarkably, not one page is diminished by the smell of the lamp; de Botton shows no inclination whatsoever toward the kind of writing we would all recognize as “serious scholarship” (before reshelving the book). Instead of starting with a famous philosopher and telling us what the philosopher cared about, de Botton starts with what we care about and gives us whatever insights he can mine from his reading.
Because both the style and the substance are so deliberately unsystematic, I can’t say much more about this book without saying much too much more about it. I can say, however, that I enjoyed it immensely, and found myself grateful for my mistake. I recommend it highly.