In the book of my memory, after the first pages, which are almost blank, there is a section headed
Incipit vita nova.
Beneath this heading I find the words which it is my intention to copy into this smaller book, or if not all, at least their meaning.

Dante,La Vita Nuova

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Alain de Botton. Essays in Love. 1993.

Praise and I will be using this blog to post about the books we are reading together. We'll first read Alain de Botton's 1993 novel, Essays in Love. I have wanted to read this for a while. I am particularly interested in the author's attempt at what I have often called creative philosophy. For better or worse--and he has his share of lovers and haters--de Botton purposefully combines theory and fiction in his narratives.
This novel is my choice for our first read. Praise will pick our second book. Our rule about choosing books is simple: I must pick a book she hasn't read; she must pick a book I haven't read. That's it. No restrictions on genre. While we have a few strikingly similar tastes, we really do come at things, like reading, differently. So, there should be some fresh discussion on a DagZine blog for the first time in 3 years. I am very excited.
Essays in Love is a novel about two folks who rapidly fall in love after meeting on an airplane. It's how the author handles the description of this important event--the falling "in love"--that needs attention. De Botton receives his harshest criticism from the literati crowd which claims, if I may summarize, he turns complex philosophical topics into trite cliches. He receives his most passionate support from readers who find his work fascinating for its attempt to dwell in complex discussions about topics such as Love.
I am afraid that de Botton's best and worst criticism opens a worthless binary opposition for considering his work: Is it good or bad when a writer uses fiction to discuss complex issues usually left to a philosopher? That is a bad question. It begs so much and seeks a knee-jerk "Yes" or "No" answer. In the U.S., Fiction--the genre as well as its practitioners--is often regarded as anti-intellectual, and for good reason I suppose. English Departments worldwide are populated with lit-critters who do not read the philosophers they cite in essays and discussion; a lack of scholarly rigor in some departments is infamous and to make matters worse many people are in denial that a problem exists at all; teachers read their peers writing about other writers and cite it rather than reading complex works for themselves; the Cambridge Companion series is a replacement for actual contemporary research; anthologies are too common; Harold Bloom has become an expert in everything literary in the English language that is important; Terry Eagleton has become an expert in everything Marx & structural; ETC. I have heard some things in conferences that would make many quoted philosophers puke blood.
On the other hand, we might expand this issue slightly by stating English-speaking authors who write novels are often encouraged not to handle complex issues. It's a shame. It's a critical phenomenon I don't understand. It reminds me of the crazy insistence that we should leave philosophy to the philosophers. I would suggest, and I am hopeful that Praise agrees, such insistence is nonsense and harmful. Shouldn't we all make grand attempts? It appears de Botton is attempting to attempt.
Is de Botton's novel worthy of its subject matter? We'll see.
Below is a concise list of useful links about the author.

The Complete Review's collection of de Botton reviews (with some links to originating reviews.)

[edition note: We are reading the 2006, Picador edition. It's the edition currently available in the UK. The edition currently available in the US and in Japan is from 2008 and has different art direction.]


  1. oh so true! english people hardly ever read those philosophers. i got through 4 years of grad school by skimming the intros of those philosophy books. snore! i shouldn't have gone to grad school, but thank god i have this blog to wade through the craziness of life and literature. :) hello gary! i am a friend of praise's. i wish we could have met while i was in korea.

  2. so do i. can i have my smartypants back now?


  3. oh i'm sorry, i didn't mean to sound sarcastic. i really did mean that. i am horrible with theory, ask praise. many apologies.

  4. i am sorry i didn't meet you as well. so come back and lets hang out.