On the last day of a magical trip to New York, Greg Bruce searches for consolation in one of the world's most famous bookstores.
I was an awful 22-year-old the first time I bought a book as a bulwark against the waves of end-of-holiday despair. That's not self-deprecation; I was awful. The book I bought was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I never finished it.
As my 20s progressed and I became increasingly introspective and pathetic, I developed a strong faith in the power of self-help literature. Whenever I was returning from exciting and uplifting holidays to my bleak vision of myself, I selected books that spoke to or tried to deal with my various issues: Deepak Chopra's The Seven Laws of Spiritual Success (Switzerland) Stephen Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (London), Alain de Botton's The Consolations of Philosophy (Vietnam).
I can only guess they helped because, just before my 36th birthday, on November 2, 2012, I was married to a spectacular, brilliant woman and for our honeymoon we spent a week in New York. We arrived five days after Hurricane Sandy, when much of downtown and large chunks of the subway were still shut and whole buildings were without heat or water. The snow arrived a couple of days after us. We ate in a critically lauded downtown restaurant, the name of which I can't remember, which had no heat. I wore five layers including a scarf and we had to leave after 45 minutes because our legs were numb. The next night we pashed at the top of the Empire State Building at 1am, then I piggybacked her to the subway. A couple of nights after that, we were able to get a reservation for one of the world's greatest restaurants, Eleven Madison Park, where we had a five-hour meal of such emotional resonance and life significance that the memory alone almost moves me to tears. On the night Barack Obama was elected President for a second term, we went out into Times Square and celebrated among the crowds and TV crews. The air was cold and full of hope. The whole trip was so perfect it was corny. On our last day, a guy trying to get my attention on the street called out, "Hey, sir! Cool guy!" I knew I would never take a greater holiday.
A few months earlier, I had resigned from my job at Air New Zealand to become a freelance writer. I was not especially good and didn't have much work. That last afternoon in New York, before our flight home, we went to New York's world famous The Strand Book Store, with its self-reported 18 miles of books, and I bought The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story , by Frank O'Connor, because I thought it might help. It was erudite and pompous, and its strangely vicious critique of Katherine Mansfield gnawed at me, and I read the whole thing without much comprehension and ultimately I can't say it necessarily helped, but at a point when one of my greatest life experiences was already in my past, it gave me hope. Does anything matter more than that?
Last month, seven years after my honeymoon, I returned to New York, greatest city in the world, site of my life's apex. It was a work trip and I was alone but it was exciting and nostalgic and an emotional roller coaster. The country in which the city resided had vastly changed, politically speaking, but the city itself didn't give a s*** and I loved that about it. On my last day there, I returned to The Strand and spent the morning searching for something that would bear me up in the wake of my inevitable upcoming comedown. That's always been a lot of pressure to put on a single book and it has become greater as I've aged and my life options have narrowed. When, after two hours of searching, I came across The Decision Book: Fifty Models for Strategic Thinking, I was instantly attracted to it. I considered taking it straight to the counter but the spontaneity is weak in me even when I'm not holding a book-length argument against it. I have always had an affinity for structure and planning and the illusion of control offered by both but in that bookshop at that moment it struck me with rare power that those things are really dull. Some of The Decision Book's dozens of decision-making models were familiar to me, some were new but as I tried to envision how they might improve my life, all felt dead and cold.
One reason for this, I assume, is that the thrill of four days in New York had made me increasingly aware of the embarrassment of suburban conservatism that makes up the majority of my life and of which my attraction to The Decision Book was an arch-symptom. Another reason may have been that an hour or so earlier I had picked up a book called The Existentialist's Survival Guide , which had promised help for living from a radically different angle. The author, a professor of philosophy and boxing coach who suffers from depression and is an expert on Kierkegaard, offered the following take on life: it sucks, but don't let that get you down.
Here, then, among The Strand's reputed 18 miles of books, two roads diverged in the forest of my life and I chose one without thinking too hard about it.
I had considered many other books, obviously. I wondered if The Elements of Journalism might make me better at my job. I found copies of The Best American Essays 2008 and 2018 and wondered why there were only those two years, and what the assorted writings about wildly different eras in American history might teach me. I picked up Steal Like An Artist, by Austin Kleon. I wrote down its best ideas on the notes app on my phone, then took some photos of its key pages. One suggestion read: "Leave home" and featured a hand-drawn graph suggesting the further you get from home the more insight you obtain. Next to it was a supporting quote from writer Jonah Lehrer, who has since been outed as a plagiarist. I found the book quite inspiring until I came across a page saying, "Keep your day job," which suddenly sucked all the energy out of me. It was so prescriptive and normative, so denying of the kind of transformational power a book like this promises. I picked up a book assessing the music of Celine Dion: "A Journey to the End of Taste" and another one about the history of music in the 20th century, with a tantalising recommendation by Geoff Dyer: "Helps you listen more hearingly." Would listening more hearingly or reconsidering the output of Dion make me a better person? Did I want to be a better person? In what way/s? What this all came down to was this: What did I really want from this bookshop, and by extension, from life?
Typically, what I want is a cure for my ever-shifting locus of life dissatisfaction. I have not just belly-flopped into the modern middle-class mud puddle of research-backed happiness-pursuit but have rolled around in it for years, filthily, trying desperately to get the stink to stick to me. I've never really succeeded. What The Existentialist's Survival Guide seemed to offer was a challenge to the idea that life dissatisfaction requires a cure. The highly appealing cover quote from The Wall Street Journal's review read: "An honest and moving book of self-help for readers generally disposed to loathe the genre."
For the sake of argument, let's accept the book's premise that life sucks, because it does. Everyone you love will die and the best you can hope for is some of them don't go before you. Placing this thought between yourself and any decision, it turns out, is good for clarity.
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At The Strand, I opened The Existentialist's Survival Guide to a random page and found a passage in which author Gordon Marino writes about his subplot life as a boxing trainer. He urges his boxing students, mostly against their natures, to stand close enough to their opponent to get punched in the face. This is what's known in boxing as being "in the pocket" and is what's known in life as "living".
You are going to get hit. That is a fact. Not a fact: your reaction to getting hit: "We are swamped by moods and feelings," Marino writes, "but if we try, we can still manage to keep a part of ourselves outside those feelings."
On he goes, paraphrasing Kierkegaard: "You still have a responsibility to reach through the pain and to care for and about others even if you find it hard to care about yourself."
This is not the standard advice of the self-help section, not a book proposing how you can be happier, more effective, more economically useful. It is a more modest, but a kinder and more honest proposal.
We like to convince ourselves there are good reasons for everything we do, but the evidence for that is flimsy. Our thoughts and ideas develop and progress for the most part accidentally. A good bookstore is a place in which to have accidents.
On the train back to my Brooklyn hotel, as I crossed the Manhattan Bridge, The Existentialist's Survival Guide in my hands, I felt full of hope and excitement, a renewed vigour for life having replaced the softly expanding ennui of late-stage holiday. But, back at the hotel, waiting for the porter to bring my bags out of basement storage, I overheard a group of late middle-aged Americans exchanging loud and progressively more depressing mundanities across the lobby. One of them yelled, "Are you going up for a nap?" which is an inoffensive enough example of small talk but, in that setting, in that mood, I found it strangely upsetting. I was chock-full of the thrill and life of New York and its enriched reality. The idea of a short sleep in in the afternoon and, worse, the idea that it was worth using up real human communication on the subject, struck me as an affront to the project of living.
Human communication is wasteful by default though. To have any sort of genuine, life-enhancing interaction with another person, you first have to slog your way through the thick swamp of mundanity. There's no point fighting that; it's just the way it is.
The world of books and associated ideas cuts through all that blandness and smallness. It's a purer and much-enhanced reality in which any all-too-human prevarication is - in theory - eliminated after the first draft and what's left gets straight down to tin tacks. This is how and why books are better than humans.
I finished The Existentialist's Survival Guide a few weeks ago. Here's what I took from it: Keep on going through everything, don't listen when people say, "Don't let it get you down," because sometimes it will get you down. When it does, find someone worth holding on to, and never let them down - even when you feel like you can't do the same for yourself. A related thing I took from it: You can't have a relationship with a book.