First Saturday of first month in a New Year: it must be Six Degrees of Separation day. To see how this works, head over to https://booksaremyfavouriteandbest.com/6-degrees-of-separation-meme/ Essentially it’s a free association game where you link a given title, in this case Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility with other books that you have read.
As usual, I have not read the starting book but I have just finished Towles’ wonderful A Gentleman in Moscow. But as I haven’t blogged it yet, I’ll take a different tack, looking at the ideas of rules and civility in their different forms.
A book with a similar injunction on behaviour is How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell. Actually, it’s not Bakewell telling you how to live, but Michel de Montaigne, the prototype blogger, who doodled around philosophical questions in his ‘Essays’ in the sixteenth century.
This book, How to Live, is a biography in the quirky and digressive spirit of Montaigne too. It, like Montaigne, takes the question “how to live?” and distills twenty answers that Montaigne might have given, as prisms onto Montaigne the man and his work. (See my review here)
Writers are quite fond of telling us how to live and what to do, and the wonderful Elizabeth von Arnim was no exception. Elizabeth von Arnim’s work was my discovery of 2021 and I really enjoyed Gabrielle Carey’s Only Happiness Here: In Search of Elizabeth von Arnim. The author, who was going through a rather rough patch in her life, decided to seek out von Arnim’s advice about happiness because so many of the characters in her books revelled in it.
So, the book is a search for Elizabeth von Arnim’s Principles for Happiness, which she nicely presents as a single page certificate at the end of the book. She finds nine: freedom, privacy, detachment, nature and gardens, physical exercise, a kindred spirit, sunlight, leisure and creativity. Each of these is discussed in turn throughout the book, appearing as a subheading in a book without chapters. This is not just a one-way distillation of wisdom from on high. Carey brings her own life to the search, particularly with the concept of ‘privacy’ which recent events prior to embarking on the book had brought to the front of her own consciousness. (My review here)
The injunction to Come On Shore and We Will Kill You and Eat You All: An Unlikely Love Story is a fairly clear directive on how to live, or at least how to not die. You might not guess it from the title, but it is a combination of memoir and a discussion of border-crossings in colonialism and personal life when an American academic marries Seven, a Maori man, and has three children with him.
She is an American academic, based in Melbourne to write her doctoral thesis, and when she meets and marries Seven, she finds herself enmeshed in Maori family and community obligations that she both observes and critiques as a border-crosser. She is quite open about the fact that there are values and responses that she does not share, or even completely understand, and she feels conflicted about the historical trajectory that has seen her New England family amass wealth and status over another disenfranchised people, the American native. She can see the parallels in her own story, and that of the history of Seven’s family and culture. (My review here)
Not quite so graphic is the concept of ‘good’ behaviour as a marker of ‘civilization’ as spelled out in Penny Russell’s Savage or Civilized: Manners in Colonial Australia. She’s not talking about ‘politeness’ as described in the etiquette manuals that flooded the British Empire, but how manners played out in the everyday lives of individuals, in the way that we acknowledge and respect the humanity of others (or not).
Not everybody cared about manners, but this book concentrates on those who did. It explores what she calls four ‘contexts’: the pastoral frontier; convict society; the domestic world and the new public space that opened up in the the latter part of the nineteenth century. The book is not necessarily chronological, as these ‘contexts’ were continuous throughout the late eighteenth and nineteenth century time period, but there is nonetheless a chronological trajectory in the narrative. (My review here)
We can see the concept of ‘rules for civility’ being played out in the life of Anna Murray Powell, the wife of the Chief Justice of the Kings Bench in Upper Canada (i.e. Toronto) in the early 19th century in Katherine McKenna’s A Life of Propriety: Anna Murray Powell and her family 1744-1849. Despite her insistence on ‘propriety’ the good judge and his wife had a series of dud children including her young daughter who became caught up in a highly-scandalous infatuation with an eminent lawyer.
The most fascinating chapter was that concerning the ‘unnatural’ daughter, Anne Murray Powell Junior. It is a very nineteenth-century take on the difficulties with parenting a wilful and troubled adolescent daughter. The story of Anne Jnr.’s infatuation with John Beverley Robinson, the future attorney-general, has been told by other historians, but I suspect not with the sensitivity that McKenna brings to the situation. It all ends tragically, and although the expectations and language of these unyielding 19th ‘pillars of society’ in their treatment of their daughter might not sit well with us today, the experience of parenting, loving, and losing transcends these differences. (My review here).
But it’s not only 19th century figures who tell us how to live. Jumping right into our current day is Yuval Noah Harari in his 21 Lessons for the 21st century. Actually the 21 lessons are just chapter headings in a book of five parts: (1)The Technological Challenge; (2) The Political Challenge; (3) Despair and Hope; (4) Truth; (5) Resilience.
This book felt like a series of essays, a bit like a chocolate ripple cake concertinaed together with an introduction and bridging paragraph launching you off into the next essay. I thought that the first two parts of the book were much stronger than the other sections. Even though I am open to deepening my spirituality, his promotion of meditation just felt ‘off’ in this book.
One very sobering thought, though. My grandchild, due in late 2019/2020 has every chance of living into the 22nd century. I really fear for him/her. I don’t think that we’ll learn the 21 lessons here well enough to offer a world better than what we have now. (My review here)
And now that we have passed the first 21 years of the 21st century – Happy New Year full of reading delights!