Love, Death and Other Causes of Indigestion
How Should We Live? Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life
Cultural theorist and thinker Roman Krznaric’s newest book How Should We Live? collects a dizzying array of historical anecdotes and arcane facts, ruminated over in a series of essays. These essays are divided into broad categories, including “Making a Living” and “Discovering the World,” and then again into several no-less-ambitious topics such as “Empathy,” “Time” and “Deathstyle.” With this process, the author hopes to illuminate the historical origins of some of modern (Western) society’s most basic and deeply-held beliefs and values.
Searching for insight into such universal topics as love, family, work and nature, Krznaric reaches back to the Greeks, through Medieval and Renaissance philosophers and on through the Victorians and modern thinkers. The breadth of his explorations is impressive, but its very scope renders their individual treatment somewhat shallow, and his conclusions, while sincerely formulated and often inspiring, are unfortunately sometimes a bit banal.
Krznaric is at his very best when delving into little-known and often esoteric topics, such as his compelling story of the origin of the myth of the five senses. Krznaric recounts the tale of the 19th century mystery-man, Kaspar Hauser, who appeared in a German town one day, after apparently having been imprisoned in a dungeon for years on end, with little light, no intellectual stimulation and only bread to eat. Krznaric’s description of Hauser’s tragic life, the impact of the sensory deprivation he endured—and the perplexing ways his senses developed, flourished and diminished—is truly fascinating. Likewise, the author’s exploration of the origin of clocks and their impact on humanity—in terms of our perspectives on time, productivity and what he calls “the cult of speed” —makes for deeply interesting reading.
The book is less successful, however, when Krznaric moves from these moments of historical action or philosophy toward specific modern behaviors and thought, attempting to draw from these disparate, though engaging, essays a coherent analysis of current dilemmas and a viable blueprint for happiness in the present day. In these editorial musings, often serving as “bookend” commentary of each section, too much of the author’s own philosophical and personal preoccupations intrude. Krznaric, while clearly adept at moving through the minutiae of history, showcasing both the large and the small moments, does not share this intellectual meal with us so much as require us to digest a rather large plate of unrelated foods he has placed in front of us, while he sits, sated, watching us eat.