A State of Wonder and Serenity

What is this song or picture, this engaging personality presented in life or in a book, to me? What effect does it really produce on me? Does it give me pleasure? And if so, what sort or degree of pleasure?

—Walter Pater


In 1989 a friend said to me, “I have so far to go in this life … I am so happy.”   This came back to me when reading Washington Post literary critic Michael Dirda’s inspiring  Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life:  There is so much to read and reread… let’s get cracking!  I found engaging chapters that deal with  “the pleasures of learning,” “the books of love,” and “the interior library.”  Dirda describes his book this way:   “In its character the result is a florilegium, a ‘bouquet’ of insightful or provocative quotations from favorite authors, surrounded by some of my own observations, several lists, the occasional anecdote, and a series of mini-essays on aspects of life, love, work, education, art, the self, death. There’s even, occasionally, a bit of out-and-out advice.”  In this spirit, I will share a few lists, with gusto and gratitude.

Books To Read:

Agee, On Film, A Certain World
Auden and Pearson, Poets of the English Language
Byatt, Possession
Cardano, The Book of My Life
Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Catullus, Poems
Chatwin, In Patagonia
Ellman, James Joyce
MFK Fisher. The Art of Eating
Fowler, Modern English Usage
Janson, History of Art
Kenner, The Pound Era
Lodge, Small World
Malamud, “A Summer’s Reading”
Andrew Marvell, Poems
Tony de Mello, The Way to Love
China Mieville, Perdido Street Station
Morris, The World of the Shining Prince
Paris Review, Writers at Work
Pater, Renaissance, Appreciations, Imaginary Portraits
Postgate, The Conversations of Dr. Johnson
Prose, Blue Angel
Sappho, Poems
Slonimsky, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians
Sophocles, Philoctetes
W. M. Spackman, An Armful of Warm Girl
Stendhal, On Love
Theroux, Darconville’s Cat
Vasari, Lives
Simone Weil, On the Iliad
Yates, The Art of Memory
Stefan Zweig, Balzac


The Wisdom Project: To Read and Return to

Book of Job
Plato’s Dialogues—Symposium, Apology, Republic
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Horace, Odes
Augustine, Confessions
Cicero, Selected Writings and Letters
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy
Montaigne, Essays
Castiglione, Book of the Courtier
Pascal, Pensees
Rochefoucauld, Maxims
Boswell, Life of Johnson
Stendhal, Intimate Writings
Emerson, Journals and Essays
Newman, Idea of a University
Freud, Papers and Case Studies
Weil, Selected Writings


Listening List:

Louis Armstrong
Miles Davis
Billie Holliday
Charlie Parker
Ella Fitzgerald, The Complete Ella Fitzgerald Song Book
Bach, Goldberg Variations
Mozart, Marriage of Figaro
Mozart, Don Giovanni
Beethoven, Late String Quartets
Beethoven, fourth piano Concerto
Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique
Schubert, Winterreise
Wagner, Tristan and Isolde
Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring
Debussy, solo piano music


For My Commonplace Books:

Samuel Beckett: Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

Juan Luis Borges: To fall in love is to create a religion that has a fallible god.

Calvino: Lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity

Colette’s maxim: La règle guérit tout—disciplines cures everything.

Goethe: Every day one should at least hear a little song, read one good poem, see one fine painting and—if at all possible—speak a few sensible words.

Glenn Gould: The purpose of art is not the release of a momentary ejection of adrenaline but is, rather, the gradual lifelong construction of a state of wonder and serenity.

Henry James: Remember that every life is a special problem, which is not yours, but another’s; and content yourself with the terrible algebra of your own.

Benjamin Jowett, to a student: You are a fool. You must be sick of idling…. But the class matters nothing. What does matter is the sense of power that comes from steady working.

Antonio Machado :  Slowly now, nice neat letters;/The point is to do things well/not just to do them.

Charlie Parker: An awed interviewer once exclaimed to the jazz saxophonist Charlie parker, “You do amazing things on the saxophone, Mr. Parker.” The musician replied, “I don’t know about amazing—I practiced for fifteen hours a day for a few years.”

Schopenhauer: We should comport ourselves with the masterpieces of art as with exalted personages—stand quietly before them and wait till they speak to us.

Anthony Trollope (who awoke at 5:30 everyday to write before work):  All those I think who have lived as literary men –working daily as literary laborers—will agree with me that three hours a day will produce as much as a man ought to write. But then, he should have so trained himself that he shall be able to work continuously during those three hours—so have tutored his mind that it shall not be necessary for him to sit nibbling his pen, and gazing at the wall before him, till he shall have found the word with which he wants to express his ideas. It had at this time to become my custom … to write with my watch before me, and to require from myself 250 words every quarter of an hour.

Oscar Wilde: A school should be the most beautiful place in every town and village—so beautiful that the punishment for undutiful children should be that they be debarred from going to school the following day.

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