Pursuits of Happiness:
On Being Interested
by eva brann
paul dry, 612 pages, $29.95
At ninety-four years old, Eva Brann is both the oldest and longest-serving tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, America’s premier Great Books liberal arts institution. She is also the most widely published member of the faculty, notable at a school aimed at cultivating the life of the mind in private, between friends, or in a seminar, rather than in the exhibitionist style encouraged by social media. She’s been awarded the National Humanities Medal and at least three honorary doctorates; even well into her late eighties, she remained a regular lecturer on liberal education and the liberal arts at colleges and universities throughout the country. Altogether, she’s written, edited, and translated upward of three dozen books (seven in the past decade alone). She’s one of America’s most prolific and wide-ranging intellectual luminaries—and yet also one of the quietest.
Her new book, Pursuits of Happiness: On Being Interested, collects thirty-eight of Brann’s lectures and essays from the past several years, on subjects as diverse as the epics of Homer, the novels of Jane Austen, the nature of the imagination, and how to think about the questions we ask in seminars. It’s a rich and diverse intellectual potpourri, united under the spirit of the title: Living happily, Brann demonstrates, means living interestedly. And being interested—“inter-esse (Latin), ‘to be among and within’ beings, to find them interesting, that is, worth being with”—demands a capacious and inquisitive attitude toward the world. “Lovers of wisdom,” sage Heraclitus once wrote, “should be inquirers into very many things.” Pursuits of Happiness is both a demonstration of and invitation to such inquiry, by one of our age’s greatest minds.
—Joseph M. Keegin
The Mystery of Identity
by luke belle, o.s.b.
angelico, 246 pages, $26
Who am I? Who do you say that I am? Do I decide who I am? We all ponder these profound questions and, in recent decades, they have become increasingly politicized and sexualized. People today are in search of identity.
In The Mystery of Identity, Luke Bell, a Benedictine monk of Quarr Abbey on the Isle of Wight, just off England’s south coast, enters what he calls “a veritable thicket” as he tackles these questions. He is armed by his faith, his wide reading—drawing on the likes of Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, modern authors, and even Sufi mystics—and years of reflection as an “identical twin” (itself something of a misnomer) and a Benedictine. The result is an illuminating and inspiring volume that rewards slow reading.
Bell’s definition leads readers through ponderous paradoxes: Identity means being the same and being different, attending to the universal and to the particular. Identity cannot be grounded in the things of this world; otherwise it becomes an illusory fragment, constantly reinventing itself as its material circumstances alter. Bell is not shy in stating that “Christians find who they are in their relation to Christ.” Yet this is no simple task—indeed, just as cacti flower in response to harsh conditions, so do people. We need to find ourselves by going into the desert and fighting demons (who stand for who we are not). Ultimately, though, it is by losing self that we find it; only a nobody can be somebody. Identity comes from God, and “He will not give us who we are, our true selves, if we are blocking the gift by preferring the construction of our contriving.” The quest for identity ends in mystery, for “it belongs properly to a world beyond this one.”
Meet Me at the Lighthouse
by dana gioia
graywolf, 72 pages, $16
Dana Gioia is best known for his provocative call, decades ago, for a renewal of poetic form in American verse, and his more recent call for a “renovation” of the Catholic literary neighborhood. The common root that verse and Catholicism share, as Gioia showed in his First Things essay, “Singing Aquinas in L.A.,” is the beauty of music. Poetry grew out of music, while music as we know it developed out of its service to the liturgy. Gioia’s previous volumes of verse often testified to this shared root, but this, his sixth collection, exemplifies the music of poetry from beginning to end.
The title poem recalls a Southern California jazz club in the 1970s, which featured “The swinging-masters of our West Coast soul.” Poems of similar inspiration include the cowboy song about Gioia’s great-grandfather, “The Ballad of Jesús Ortiz,” three psalms to Gioia’s native Los Angeles, and three songs which jazz composer Helen Sung has set to music. All these poems testify to Gioia’s keenly musical ear, as well as his sense that poetry should not only be metaphorically musical but genuinely so. These are poems to be read or sung aloud.
The last line of the title poem strikes, however, a darker note: “Death the collector is keeping the tab.” The prospect of death hangs over nearly all the poems in this volume, from a string of opening elegies to the book’s final section, the first part of a long poem called “The Underworld.” Here we meet a different sort of conductor, one who leads the poem to a place with “No sun, no moon, no stars, no sky, no end.” It is a sobering slice of the Inferno, and the work of a master so assured in the music of his voice that he cannot fail. The book is shorter in length than Gioia’s others, but nearly every poem shows the poet at his best.
—James Matthew Wilson