The Choice of Life

This is the first of my effort to increase the frequency of this blog from a couple of times a month to weekly, usually and hopefully on Fridays. After it occurred to me to do this in an email exchange with my friend Oscar last week, I later thought of two very different authors: Jean-Paul Sartre and Stephen King. Apart from his philosophy, Sartre also wrote plays and novels and other genres, but the only one of this novels that I find readable – the other ones are literature relegated to messages about existentialism – is one with the charming title of Nausea. There is a point in this novel where the narrator decides to give up his diary, because “il faut choisir: vivre ou raconter” (you have to choose: live or write [about living]). I sometimes think similarly when I’m writing a blog post about a book I am writing. Wouldn’t it be better to be writing the book instead?

As for Stephen King, this week I thought about the writer character in The Shining, who’s supposed to be writing at the hotel but his wife eventually discovers that he’s just filled page after page with “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and on a manual typewriter with many typos. I’m using my trusty, durable Lenovo desktop to write my biography of Sam, but that’s just it: I want to write the book and not procrastinate with or be distracted by sideshows. (Side note: viewers easily notice the typos as the writer’s wife looks at his typescript, but there’s an error in the main saying as well: it should be “make Jack a dull boy,” since there’s a plural subject with “work” and “play.”)

But that’s the negative way to look at things. The fact is that doing activities “around” the main activity that you are trying to accomplish can be helpful as inspiration or in order to get you into the right state of mind. Better to be blogging about writing a book about Sam than watching clips about car crashes on YouTube.

Choice, and especially choosing the right life, were perennial concerns for Sam. He published one novella in his life, Rasselas in 1759 just a few months before his 50th birthday, and he had told his publisher when he’d proposed the book that the title would be The Choice of Life (he changed his mind in the end, but the whole book is about making major and minor life choices). And when Sam was attending Oxford during 1728-1729 he came upon a book by William Law titled A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, and later told Boswell that he expected “to find it a dull book (as such books generally are), and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion, after I became capable of rational inquiry.”

Sam’s life turned out the same way most of ours do. You make plans and choices, but sometimes life imposes a few choices on you, or hinders one that you really wanted, or you yourself just don’t manage to accomplish for whatever reason the ideal choice that you had wanted for your life.

Sam wanted to be a teacher, but his lack of a degree and his (as some students saw it) awkward manner in the classroom – doctors now think that he actually suffered from Tourette syndrome – hampered his success. And when he used his wife Tetty’s money to set up his own school, he just didn’t attract enough students. His first application to be a professional writer in London for The Gentleman’s Magazine was not even answered (though he later was hired to do hack work there and eventually got involved with better writing gigs once his talent was recognized). There was a time in my life when I thought the best job in the world would be being a professional football player (a linebacker), and then writing professionally in the off-season. That didn’t work out obviously, and a tiny part of me regrets that, but by far I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished and with what I am doing now as I head into retirement from a career as an academic librarian.

Sam’s famous biographer, James Boswell, suffered from either indecision or lack of application concerning what to to with his life. He had pressure from his father to become a lawyer (and he ultimately did) and to find a good wife, but certainly in his 20’s he applied himself more to cavorting with prostitutes and other ladies he managed to seduce than with the law or the search for a wife.

In one of the passages I do somewhat remember from one of Sartre’s unreadable novels (part of a trilogy he wrote called Les chemins de la liberté [The Roads to Freedom]), a man steps off the back of a slow-moving train, but then changes his mind and decides he wants to get back on. However, the train is moving faster now and he can’t manage it. For Sartre the key thing was what he called “l’engagement” (commitment), and that is indeed important. You can’t be continually choosing and then changing your mind, or you will end up as a senior who has not done much, or has only done a little of this and a little of that. “Pick a lane,” as the kids say. Choose something and give it your best.

For the many things that Sam fretted about in his life, he was not really indecisive. He never missed a single twice-weekly Rambler essay deadline in two full years. He produced a dictionary. An edition of Shakespeare’s plays. A series of biographies and introductions to poets. For sure, he procrastinated and sometimes complained, but he got them all done. I feel similarly about my biography. I may wish sometimes that I had more written by now, but unless Jesus calls me to his side this afternoon or a speeding Audi crumples over me next week, I know I will finish the book.

Wish me luck.

These are the spine and the title page of a copy of the first of two volumes of The Rambler that I recently purchased. As you can see, it’s in a bit beat-up condition and is really not worth much, but there are some nice curiosities. It was published in 1791, the same year that Boswell published his famous biography of Johnson (seven years after his death). And the previous owners include a reverend and a doctor, the latter of whom lived 1.5 km from where I am sitting right now.
2 replies
  1. Wayne
    Wayne says:

    He was an exceptionally well read and knowledgeable man. One of the most famous of his statements about his own work actually concerns The Rambler: “My other works are wine and water; but my Rambler is pure wine.” He was a practical, working writer for most of his career, who didn’t have a “day job” to support his habit, so a lot of his writing life was spent getting contracts and working on large projects. He knew that the Rambler essays were good work and that the dictionary he compiled was a pretty major accomplishment, but, like many people with high ambitions or productive outputs, that didn’t stop him from feeling that he had never done quite enough.

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