One of the frustrations of academic research is that the distinction between reading for work and reading for leisure becomes blurred. This year, having finished a major research project, I decided that I would rediscover the pleasure of reading as an end in itself, and maybe even recapture that blissful childhood experience of burrowing into a corner with a book and losing myself for hours on end.
Our modern combination of excessive work and commodified leisure is one of the themes explored in How Much Is Enough? Money and the Good Life (Other Press, $24.95, 256 pp.), by Robert Skidelsky and Edward Skidelsky (see “Less, Please” by Gary Gutting, Commonweal, December 12, 2012). Robert is an economist known for his work on John Maynard Keynes, and Edward, his son, is a philosopher. Keynes features prominently in the book, not least because in an essay written in 1930 he argued that capitalism should encourage “the money-making and money-loving instincts in individuals” in the short term, since that would hasten the day when people had enough for their needs and would be able to work less and enjoy more leisure. In other words, capitalism would eventually become self-defeating. In challenging this idea, the Skidelskys draw on a wide range of intellectual sources including Aristotelianism, Catholic social teaching, Confucianism, and the Hindu scriptures.
The Skidelskys argue that modern Western societies have lost the concept of the good life, which has shaped the values of every previous culture. Central to the idea of the good life is the ability to distinguish between needs and wants. While the satisfaction of needs is an attainable and worthwhile goal, religious and ethical traditions recognize that human wants are insatiable, and those who pursue them become ever more enslaved by dissatisfaction and greed. The authors argue that, in embracing an ideology that is predicated upon economic growth and wealth production fueled by the unleashing of “wants,” modern societies are unsustainable in both ethical and environmental terms. They offer a persuasive and lucid account of the “good life” as one in which sufficiency, satisfaction, and leisure become worthy aims to pursue in common with others whose values we share (they think religion might be indispensable for this), while greed, envy, and avarice are once more recognized as the vices they are.
This panoramic vision inevitably glosses the ways in which individual lives are affected by changing economic values. The Spinning Heart (Steerforth, $15, 160 pp.), a novel by Irish writer Donal Ryan, movingly explores the consequences of the global economic crisis in a small Irish community. Revolving around the lives of those affected by the business collapse of a local builder who had embraced the property boom, it is a finely nuanced exploration of the human cost of global economics. If the Skidelskys risk a rather complacent view of sufficiency and leisure, informed more by the values of a comfortable elite than by the daily lives of those on the margins, Ryan shows us how fragile those lives are in the face of the economic juggernaut that has swept over us. He weaves a tapestry of stories about lives in crisis, revealing the loves and losses, memories and fears of characters whose anxieties come sharply into focus around a kidnapping and a murder. The novel offers a profound insight into the destructive consequences of the economic values criticized by the Skidelskys.
Two other books I read this year offer different perspectives from which to reflect upon the challenges facing us. John Feehan is an Irish environmental scientist with a keen interest in theology. His book The Singing Heart of the World: Creation, Evolution, and Faith (Orbis, $26, 240 pp.) is an inspiring exploration of modern science and the ways it requires a “metamorphosis” in our understanding of creation. Feehan argues that, far from supporting scientific atheism, science makes it “deeply reasonable” to believe in a purposeful universe evolving over vast aeons of time, and to have faith in a supernatural God as the only truly rational response to the wonder of creation. Rural Ireland forms the background to Feehan’s book, so that it felt serendipitous to be reading The Spinning Heart at the same time.
The death of Seamus Heaney led me back to savor his poetry as a rich accompaniment to the visions of Ireland in the books by Ryan and Feehan, but another poet also captured my imagination when I discovered Mary Oliver. Her collection Thirst (Beacon Press, $15, 80 pp.) was written after the death of her beloved partner, and in the exploratory awakening of faith in God. The best poems are a passionate and vivid celebration of life, with symbolic roots deep in the miracle of nature. The opening poem, “Messenger,” declares the poet’s vocation: “My work is loving the world.” How does one love the world? By gratitude and rejoicing, by giving
shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
I did not read these books snuggled in a dark corner. I read them on holiday in the wilds of Scotland. If we want to continue to enjoy such experiences, we would do well to heed the subtle warning but also the call to grace that, in various ways, resonates between and among these four books.