Monday, March 11, 2013

William B. Irvine

William B. Irvine is Professor of Philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. His books include On Desire: Why We Want What We Want and A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy.

His new book is A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt--And Why They Shouldn't, the sequel to A Guide to the Good Life.

Recently I asked Irvine about what he was reading.  His reply:
I am a curious fellow in both modern senses of the word: I feel driven to learn new things, and I am a cultural outlier. This is reflected in my reading.

I currently have bookmarks in perhaps a dozen books. The one closest to completion is Kauai’s Geologic History: A Simplified Guide, by geologists Chuck Blay and Robert Siemers. It is poorly edited and proofread; on page 75, for example, one finds the following sentence: “The”. Then why am I reading it? Because I don’t have the same literary standards for geologists as I do for, say, novelists, as long as they deliver the geological goods. Blay and Siemers do deliver: the book is dirt cheap, nicely illustrated, and chock full of information about the volcanoes, canyons, and beaches of Kauai. Great stuff, if you like that sort of thing—and I do.

Next closest to being finished is Lynn Margulis: The Life and Legacy of a Scientific Rebel, edited by Dorion Sagan (the son of Carl Sagan and Lynn Margulis). I am reading it as part of the research for a book I am writing, on moments of inspiration in science and elsewhere. The book contains a number of short essays about controversialist biologist Lynn Margulis. She was the leading advocate of the view that the mitochondria in cells are really the offspring of micro-organisms that in the distant past were engulfed by other micro-organisms. Her story is a wonderful profile in scientific courage.

Another book in my stack is Memoirs of my Nervous Illness by Daniel Paul Schreber. In the late nineteenth century, Schreber was a highly respected judge in Germany when he developed schizophrenia. I am reading this book because I have lately taken an interest in first-person accounts of mental illness. Such accounts are unusual, since mental illness can seriously undermine a person’s desire and ability to write them.

A book I just started reading—more precisely, started trying to reread—is Montaigne’s Essays, translated by J. M. Cohen. I attempted to read it in college, but without success. Recently, a reader of my books took me to task for not having quoted Montaigne enough in my writings. This made me feel a bit ashamed. It also left me wondering whether, by not having read the Essays, I had missed out on something important. Even now, though, I find that reading Montaigne is like climbing a sand dune—a difficult slog. Perhaps the translation (the same one as I used in college) is to blame?

I am reading another book—a manuscript, actually—as “reader” for an academic press. It is the job of a reader to decide whether a submitted work is worthy of publication. I can’t tell you anything about the work in question, since doing so would violate the “literary HIPAA rights” of those involved. I can tell you, though, that I am quite enjoying the book and am learning from it. I plan to recommend that it be published, in the expectation that others would share my enjoyment. (Okay, I can’t resist: in the book, one of the individuals interviewed, an eccentric, offers the following recommendation: “You ought to walk with a spring in your step and occasionally climb something.” Excellent advice!)
Visit William B. Irvine's website.

The Page 99 Test: A Guide to the Good Life.

--Marshal Zeringue