08 April 2015

Reading Galbraith

In my far-off student days, when I learnt so much less (about law, at any rate) than I have learnt at any time since, a friend who will of course remain nameless was challenged by one of our lecturers about what he was doing with his time at law school. He replied that he had been reading a lot of Galbraith (John Kenneth, that is). "Reading Galbraith" thereupon became a synonym for "wasting time". (Update: having made contact again, after nearly 40 years, with said lecturer, I learn from him that as a student at Harvard he used to encounter JKG around the campus.)
In my time, I have read a lot of Thompson (Hunter Stocton, that is, not the Alan Clark definition, for which see Diaries, volume 1 - although I realise that I have read a lot of that too): but not in recent years, the supply of new material having rather dried up. Unlikely role model though he was, I would dearly love to write like him, and certainly his work has had some influence on my writing career, such as it is, though readers might be hard-pressed to discern it. Today my attention was drawn to an early example of his work, and indeed of his wisdom: a letter to a friend who had asked him for advice on what we might now call the meaning of life (this being long before Douglas Adams provided the answer). The letter can be found in the printed book, Letters of Note, but not on the corresponding website where I discover that all but one of the HST letters that were there have been removed at the request of his estate and the one that remains is about him rather than by him. But Business Insider has the text and the wonderful Brain Pickings website also reproduces a lot of it (which I think is where I stumbled across it this morning, though not for the first time). It should be required reading for anyone who is human, I think. That is not to say that it is the definitive answer to the troublesome question (other guides to the meaning of life also exist) but it is a good one - and all the better because of its unlikely provenance. The youth of its author (20 or 22 depending on where you take your information from - the latter seems the more evidence-based estimate) makes it even more extraordinary, although on second thoughts perhaps this was the part of his life in which he was thinking most clearly. The fact that anyone should have asked HST for advice on anything is also a bit surprising.
I am now resolved to re-read some of the Thompson on my shelves, and to read the untouched volumes which I have collected with a rainy day in mind (and no doubt with an eye to a bargain). A glance through the contents pages of The Great Shark Hunt reminds me of what I have been missing, in the same way as listening to an old favourite piece of music that I haven't hear for decades.
I also like the 11 lessons for Gen-Y extracted from Thompson's letters (collected in The Proud Highway which was published 17 years ago, when I had other things on my mind, and followed by two more volumes of The Fear and Loathing Letters as the series is called). I think I am right to describe his work as "existentialist", a word the meaning of which has become rather confused as it is applied to matters related to the existence of all sorts of things rather than being left alone as a helpful philosophical concept. "The Eurozone faces an existential crisis ...", writes that calmest of commentators Robert Peston on the BBC News website: why not a challenge to its very existence? Because "existential" has much more pseud value and Left-bank cachet, perhaps.
Well, time to get some work done: the client from whom I was expecting a call has missed the time, so I have no excuse to procrastinate longer. I have, one might say, read enough Galbraith for one morning.
(Further update: I read The Rum Diaries after writing this. He does write well, though that piece of almost juvenilia is now very dated.)

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