I occasionally have what I call an “epigramic” attention span. I read the headlines, but not the articles. I go to bookstores, read blurbs, sometimes full summaries, and on rare occasions the author bio. When my attention span reaches “epigramic” lowness, I can’t commit to long documents. I hunger for quick bursts of information, pithy quotations, knock-knock jokes.
Simon Van Booy (The Secret Lives of People in Love, Love Begins in Winter) has edited three small, cooly designed books concerned centrally with fate, conflict, and love. The books have a strong philosophical bent, but Van Booy’s anthologies borrow quotes and passages from great literary writers from throughout history (Shakespeare, Homer, Yeats; the impressive list goes on). He also reprints several paintings (Rembrandt, Bruegel) to demonstrate, visually, perspectives or feelings related to the three abstractions. These paintings, quotes, poems, and passages from plays and stories, mixed in with the more directly philosophical writings (Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, Plato), make the heady reading experience extremely bearable, enjoyable even.
What he’s done, in effect, is craft three books that’ll appease my “epigramic” attention span (as these books are easy to pick up, put down, flip through) while also offering me insight into three perennial human questions. Van Booy writes in his preface to the series that he wants to “present interesting and exciting philosophical ideas in a straightforward, but intelligent, language that can be understood by everyone.” This he does very well. The commentaries he offers on the pieces he’s chosen are minimal and rarely profound or enlightening; he lets the texts speak for themselves.
He wants his almost academic books to be understandable to everyone, but he’s not going to condescend to the reader to reach a universal audience. These books aren’t off-shoots of Philosophy for Dummies*. They’re more fulfilling, more engaging (and again, more cooly designed), than the typical mass-marketed introductory guidebook to thinking deeply.
My desk at college has room for only a few books. These three will make the cut this semester, for their practical usefulness (I can already see the look on my teachers’s faces once I start dropping Rilke quotes on the reg), and for those moments when I need to sharpen my focus, get my head out of the clouds, and start, seriously, thinking.