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Seven Pleasures Essays on Ordinary Happiness

ISBN: 9780312429676 | 0312429673
Edition: 1st
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Picador
Pub. Date: 8/3/2010

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What does it mean to be happy? Ever since the Founding Fathers invited every citizen to join the pursuit of happiness, Americans have been studying and pining for that elusive state of mind. But rather than explaining happiness, inSeven PleasuresWillard Spiegelman demonstrates it: he immerses usin the joyful, illuminating practice of seven simple pleasures --dancing, reading, walking, looking, listening, swimming, and writing--and evokes all the satisfactions they offer. Lighthearted, insightful, and deeply felt,Seven Pleasuresis a portrait of pure enjoyment. Willard Spiegelmanis the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, and has been editor of theSouthwest Reviewsince 1984. He lives in Dallas, Texas."The American expectation of happiness was already in the air when Thomas Jefferson wrote it into the Declaration of Independence--George Mason had proclaimed in Virginia's Declaration of Rights that citizens were entitled to the means of 'pursuing and obtaining happiness.' But it was Jefferson who got it right. His version guarantees only the pursuit. And to judge by most books you'd think no one ever catches hold of the prize. The self-help manuals that lay claim to the most vigorous interest in happiness are generally written for people who haven't managed to make themselves very happy. The stratagems of such books turn pleasure into a chore. And literary writers are more inclined to the misery suffered by characters whose pursuit has already hit a dead end. Tolstoy's remark about happy families--that they're all alike and for that reason presumably uninteresting--set the tone for literary thinking on the topic. None of this is lost on Willard Spiegelman, a literary critic and English professor at Southern Methodist University (and a frequent contributor toThe Wall Street Journal's Leisure & Arts pages). As he writes inSeven Pleasures, a jovial collection of essays: 'Happiness has received less respect and less serious attention than melancholy, its traditional opposite.' Mr. Spiegelman remembers playing a childhood parlor game in which you were supposed to decide whether you'd rather be happy or smart. If the implication was that you couldn't be both, thenSeven Pleasuresis Mr. Spiegelman's time-lapse refutation. His aim is to show that an intelligent, thoughtful happiness is possible. You can have enough Robert Frost in your head to riff on his line and think 'good dancers make good neighbors' and still enjoy the fox-trot.Seven Pleasuresexplores a range of satisfactions to be enjoyed in the everyday life--or, to put it another way, in the no man's land between religion and pharmacology, what Mr. Spiegelman calls the 'twin pillars of the American happiness industry.' Individual chapters focus on his own chief pleasures: reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writing. One theme of his 'book of gerunds' is that ordinariness can yield much more pleasure than is normally assumed. All the striving for happiness in our culture may cause us to overlook the riches of the familiar and near to hand. It makes sense that his first essay is about reading. It is true that Mr. Spiegelman reads for a living, but he also lives the way he reads, a lesson that any of us might learn. He looks at everything around him with a careful reader's interpretive style of perception, and he carries a reader's bundle of vicarious memories into every experience, likening what he sees to scenes from books he has read. To the extent that he has a secret to happiness, it resides in slowing down enough to pay attention to what you might call the grammar of experience. When you take the time to examine the world around you, parsing what you see,


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