What does it mean to be happy? Americans have had an obsession with the pursuit of happiness” ever since the Founding Fathers enshrined italong with life and libertyas our national birthright. Whether it means the accumulation of wealth or a more vaguely understood notion of self-fulfillment or self-actualization, happiness has been an inevitable, though elusive, goal.
But it is hard to separate real” happiness from the banal self-help version that embraces mindless positive thinking. And though we have two booming happiness industries”religion, with its promise of salvation, and psychopharmacology, with its promise of better living through chemistryeach comes with its own problems and complications.
In Seven Pleasures, Willard Spiegelman takes a look at the possibilities for achieving ordinary secular happiness without recourse to either religion or drugs. In this erudite and frequently hilarious book of essays, he discusses seven activities that lead naturally and easily to a sense of well-being. One of thesedancingrequires a partner, and therefore provides a lesson in civility, or good citizenship, as one of its benefits. The other sixreading, walking, looking, listening, swimming, and writingare things one performs alone. Seven Pleasures is a marvelously engaging guide to the pursuit of happiness, and all its accompanying delights. Willard Spiegelman is the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, and has been editor of the Southwest Review since 1984. He lives in Dallas, Texas.
"The American expectation of happiness was already in the air when Thomas Jefferson wrote it into the Declaration of IndependenceGeorge Mason had proclaimed in Virginia's Declaration of Rights that citizens were entitled to the means of 'pursuing and obtaining happiness.' But it was Jefferson who got it right. His version guarantees only the pursuit. And to judge by most books you'd think no one ever catches hold of the prize. The self-help manuals that lay claim to the most vigorous interest in happiness are generally written for people who haven't managed to make themselves very happy. The stratagems of such books turn pleasure into a chore. And literary writers are more inclined to the misery suffered by characters whose pursuit has already hit a dead end. Tolstoy's remark about happy familiesthat they're all alike and for that reason presumably uninterestingset the tone for literary thinking on the topic. None of this is lost on Willard Spiegelman, a literary critic and English professor at Southern Methodist University (and a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal's Leisure & Arts pages). As he writes in Seven Pleasures, a jovial collection of essays: 'Happiness has received less respect and less serious attention than melancholy, its traditional opposite.' Mr. Spiegelman remembers playing a childhood parlor game in which you were supposed to decide whether you'd rather be happy or smart. If the implication was that you couldn't be both, then Seven Pleasures is Mr. Spiegelman's time-lapse refutation. His aim is to show that an intelligent, thoughtful happiness is possible. You can have enough Robert Frost in your head to riff on his line and think 'good dancers make good neighbors' and still enjoy the fox-trot. Seven Pleasures explores a range of satisfactions to be enjoyed in the everyday lifeor, to put it another way, in the no man's land between religion and pharmacology, what Mr. Spiegelman calls the 'twin pillars of the American happiness industry.' Individual chapters focus on his own chief pleasures: reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writing. One theme of his 'book of gerunds' is that ordinariness can yield much more pleasure than is normally assumed. All the striving for happiness in our culture may cause us to overlook the riches of the familiar and near to hand. It makes sense that his first essay is about reading. It is true that Mr. Spiegelman reads for a living, but he also lives the way he reads, a lesson that any of us might learn. He looks at everything around him with a careful reader's interpretive style of perception, and he carries a reader's bundle of vicarious memories into every experience, likening what he sees to scenes from books he has read. To the extent that he has a secret to happiness, it resides in slowing down enough to pay attention to what you might call the grammar of experience. When you take the time to examine the world around you, parsing what you see, hear and feelMr. Spiegelman likens the approach to the parsing of a sentence in Latin classyou find that the plainest occurrence is surprisingly rich . . . Taken together, Mr. Spiegelman's essays amount to a kind of cubist memoir, catching the author from different angles. It is unexpectedly fascinating to read a memoir these days in which the author isn't a victim of anything. Mr. Spiegelman's description of the 1950s childhood he spent in a middle-class neighborhood in Philadelphia is more lounging with library card than Running With Scissors, Augusten Burroughs's 2002 memoir of dysfunction. Although Mr. Spiegelman encounters the usual adolescent rufflesthe various forms of dissatisfaction perennially suffered by what he calls 'baby bohemians'he sees his experience as a series of discoveries, not tragedies. Near the end of 'Self Consciousness,' his own set of memoir-essays about a more or less happy life, John Updike wondered whether a contented existence was suitable material for a memoirist. 'Happiness,' he asked. 'Is it a subject?' The popularity of what might be called casualty litbooks that play on their authors' damaged livesanswers no. But Updike believed there was value in catching sight of happiness out of the corner of the eye. Looking at his pleasures, Mr. Spiegelman does just that, seven times. The eighth pleasure the book provides is in the intelligence and grace he brings to the job."Wes Davis, The Wall Street Journal
"Willard Spiegelman loves to dance, swim, and take long walks, but he is not a performer, athlete, or advocate of avid exercise. These activities simply bring him pleasure, so he indulges in them. For the same reason, he loves to look at art, listen to music, read literature, and write, but is neither a snooty aesthete nor a withdrawn loner. If anything, he is passionate, almost gluttonous in savoring these modest delights, and he wants to reach out so others will know the pleasures they can bring. That impulse to share his enjoyment has resulted in Seven Pleasures, an appropriately entertaining and provocative book. Scholar, editor and teacher, Spiegelman is writing hereas a 'loving amateur'about happiness and 'the pleasurable things you can do to promote it and to increase a sense of general well-being, of what is called sanguinity' . . . Spiegelman, an English professor at Southern Methodist University, knows how Pollyanna-like this may sound. He knows the world can be almost unbearably grim, that its distractions can overwhelm our capacity for the kinds of pleasure we need most, that many of us have cause to despair, but he believes nevertheless that happiness is 'something that can be cultivated,' an ideal 'to which to aspire just as we have ideals of justice, beauty, courage, and temperance.' While religion can provide consolation for some, and pharmacology for others, Spiegelman thinks that 'an informed sanguinity stands a chance' for the rest to achieve 'ordinary happiness.' Spiegelman also knows how out-of-fashion, even unscholarly, his subject may seem. 'Like any other label for a generalized sense of well-being, pleasure seems to interest existential and postmodern philosophers or theorists far less than gloom, despair, neurosis.' He adds that 'skeptical intellectuals all too often equate sanguinity with bovine contentment or repression; melancholy is mother's milk to them.' Yet he brings to his writing an intellectual rigor and personal honesty that demonstrate his subjects' vitality, interest, and significance. Seven Pleasures is comprised of equal parts memoir, reflection, observation, and speculation. The more active pleasures, he finds, satisfy by connecting body and mind, bringing together 'doing and feeling' in ways that help block out other concerns . . . What Spiegelman finds at the core of each pleasurable pursuit under consideration is its capacity for 'losing myself in the activity, rather than finding myself.' Paradoxically, of course, it is the losing of self that enables us to expand and enrich ourselves, as kneaded dough rises and comes to fullness only when left quiet and alone. With the exception of dancing, Spiegelman's seven pleasures are 'best accomplished unaccompanied.' But perhaps because it's the least predictable, dancing seems central to his work. It contains some of the book's finest prose and most surprising insights, as in his description of a dance group, Tango Argentina, which he saw during its US tour in the mid-1980s. Though its members 'looked like everyone's great aunts and uncles,' when they moved 'you could see what years of training allowed them to do: stay absolutely rigid from the waist up, and sinuous and spidery from the waist down, as legs wrapped in and out of legs in positions you hardly thought possible for people who remained vertical.' Here Spiegelman both describes and enacts his essential point, that certain readily available activities can transport us, unite body and spirit, bring pleasure in the doing, but also in the looking, in the writing, and in the reading. His book is both a simple and complex pleasure, slow and swift at once, a graceful meditation on ordinary happiness."Floyd Skloot, The Boston Globe
"Willard Spiegelman, Hughes professor of English at Southern Methodist University, hearkens back to this earlier tradition in Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness. This slim book is surprisingly expansive in its range and potential usefulness. Spiegelman notes that he is a relatively happy person, and the seven pleasures he enumerates, one per chapter, have presumably helped make him so. Taking our cue from him, we can read this book as a highly literate how-to for a happier life . . . Spiegelman's book is an attempt to use personal experience to connect both with other writers' experiences and to a larger humanity. As a result, this is a literary book but also an accessible and comforting one to the general reader. All of the pleasures enumerated, with the exception of dancing, are solitary and, as such, can serve as consolation in the face of loss and loneliness. In the end, this discourse on seven pleasures leads one to want an eighth: conversation. Spiegelman, like Samuel Johnson, whom he cites frequently, seems as if he would be a wonderful dinner companion. Proof of a good familiar essay may be that it makes you want to have a conversation with its authoror perhaps to feel as though you have."Paula Marantz Cohen, The Philadelphia Inquirer
"From Aristotle to the Founding Fathers to this week's hot self-helper, people have always sought to understand and seize happiness. What is it? What produces it? How can we make it last? The happiness literature is voluminous, but thankfully that didn't prevent Willard Spiegelman, the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, from supplying his own answers to the eternal questions. Those answers grow not from lofty theories but from the contentment, and sometimes delight, found in apparently mundane activities. Spiegelman details his personal history with each of these pursuits and, true to his professional calling, gives us a guided tour of what great writers, artists and critics have said about it: Kierkegaard on walking, Byron on swimming, Jane Austen on dancing, and much more . . . The author nicely balances his own cogent observations with those of the famous dead. His chapter titled 'Looking' illustrates this, mixing ideas from Ruskin and Clement Greenberg with his own musings on Edward Hopper's Western Motel . . . Spiegelman notes that with one exception, dancing, these pleasures are best enjoyed alone, as anyone knows who has endured a chattering mob in a too-popular museum exhibit or wondered what, besides tweets, one can compose amid the babble of a Starbucks. He worries about the effects of cellphone-crazed mass culture on the private life of the mind. Many intellectuals would scorn 'ordinary happiness' (and ordinary anything), but Spiegelman sees nothing desirable in existential gloom. He's proof that clear-eyed, secular happiness is possible despite life's inevitable pain. Can we be both smart and happy? By word and deed, this author shows the answer is yes."Chris Tucker, The Dallas Morning News
"A combination of memoir and meditation, Seven Pleasures is a departure from Prof. Spiegelman's normal scholarly (though always lively and jocund) mode of writing; in it, he reflects upon seven surprisingly accessible activities that install a sense of well-being: dancing, reading, walking, looking, listening, swimming, and writing."Texas Monthly
"'Most folks,' Abraham Lincoln observed, 'are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.' By that standard Willard Spiegelman, a professor of English at Southern Methodist University, is an extraordinarily happy man. And we should be equally pleased he's chosen to discourse on the reasons for his happiness in this erudite and spritely collection of essays. Spiegelman has chosen seven 'ordinary pleasures'reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writingto illustrate how simple activities serve to bring joy and fulfillment to his life. It's impossible to read this collection without pausing often to reflect on the similar pleasures each of us could add to or substitute on Spiegelman's short list, whether it's cooking, gardening or golfing. And whatever pleasures our catalogue may contain, he suggests, we should turn to them often to 'increase a general sense of well-being,' confident as he is that 'happiness may come through grace or birth, but it may also come through training.' It would be misleading to suggest that Spiegelman's slim book should be consigned to the overcrowded category of slick, self-help tomes. Inspired by eminent muses like Emerson, Wallace Stevens and Auden, he brings to his task an impressive scope of learning, enriched by broad reading and extensive travel and reflecting a deep appreciation of the visual arts and a love of music. He's uniformly at ease discoursing on the delights (and inevitability) of getting lost strolling the alleyways of Venice, deconstructing an Edward Hopper painting or recalling the joys of browsing the aisles of a dusty used bookstore in his home town of Philadelphia. Firmly at home in the relaxed, occasionally discursive tradition of the personal essay, Spiegelman demonstrates an agreeable facility for summoning up an apt quotation or allusion that invests a seemingly modest insight with nuance. Intermingled with his unabashedly intellectual pursuits, Spiegelman doesn't hesitate to celebrate our physical existence. He's passionate about dancing's contribution to mental health ('Put on your pumps, toss out your Prozac.') and there's wry humor as he describes how he almost squandered the joy he experiences in the swimming pool when he took lessons, striving to perfect his technique. Willard Spiegelman is frank to acknowledge he's a lucky manphysically and mentally sound at age 65 with many friends and a stimulating professionalthough he takes pains not to flaunt those blessings. In Seven Pleasures, he's graciously endeavored to help each of us understand how fortunate we, too, can be if we simply allow ourselves to savor our good fortune. That's the inspiriting message of this elegant, delightful work."Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf Awareness
"The roots of Spiegelman's writing go back to the kind of personal essay pioneered by E.B. White at The New Yorker: The surface of the prose is flawless, and the mind represented by the prose charms its way past all difficulties. Growing up as the child of middle-class Jews in Philadelphia during the postwar era, before the 'ubiquity of television,' Spiegelman learned that he loved to read, and built a career out of that passion. Unlike many academics, he seems pleased with his choice, and in continual pursuit of ways to make his world expand . . . He spends a great deal of time, for instance, looking at paintings, listening to music, and even, in his late middle age, ballroom dancing. The chapters on walking and dancing are Spiegelman at his most E.B. White-ish: observant, keen to describe his own immediate sentiments, and yet somehow preserving, for all the autobiography on display, a certain reticence . . . These essays exude a contagious satisfaction in a thing well-done and well-expressed: indeed, they not only describe what makes Spiegelman happy, but in doing so, they make the reader happy."Roger Gathman, Austin American-Statesman
"Few happy people write books, but when they do, they confer the blessings of wisdom and their sanguine nature on the unhappy many. I learned so much from Seven Pleasures. I felt that Willard Spiegelman was personally walking me through all the steps necessary to dance the tango of bliss that he has so delightfully mastered."Edmund White, author of Hotel de Dream
"Spiegelman's Seven Pleasures mounts a gentle and persuasive argument for what years ago would have been called a more civilized life. And it reminds us what we owe ourselves: that attempt to appreciate as fully as possible that we are here, right now, wherever here may be."Jim Shepard, author of Like You'd Understand, Anyway
"Spiegelman has written a tidy cordial of a book. Like a soigné combination of Don Giovanni and a college dean, he serves his nectar with a sassy, ironic instructiveness. He gets life right."Wayne Koestenbaum, author of Hotel Theory
"Willard Spiegelman is our invaluably companionable philosopher of normalcy, and we are happy to benefit here from his wisdom, wit, and well-stocked mind."Phillip Lopate, author of Against Joie de Vivre
"Spiegelman's essays are wonderful advertisements for taking pleasure in the ordinary, and reminders that were never too old to take dancing or swimming lessons, or to learn to be lost in Venice. A lovely, companionable book."Margot Livesey, author of The House on Fortune Street
"Willard Spiegelman has the secret of happiness. It worked for me and it will work for you. His book is your new best friend."Raymond Sokolov, author of Fading Feast
"In Seven Pleasures, Willard Spiegelman reminds us that real happiness can be obtained with a radio, a library card, a public pool, and a pair of well-soled shoes. Spiegelman is simply a great essayist."Mark Oppenheimer, author of Thirteen and a Day
"In this luminous, compelling book, Spiegelman comments on seven activities that can bring us ordinary happinessreading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming, and writinginjecting biographical elements into the universal messages he imparts. First, though, he tries to define, or at least capture the essence of, happiness. 'Happiness,' he observes, 'has received less respect and less serious attention than melancholy.' He notes the American propensity to see happiness as a right and contrasts it with the gloominess of the European mindset. With the exception of dancing, every activity he writes about involves solitude. In the reading chapter, he refers to his generation as 'the last children born before the ubiquity of television'; if watching TVs early, fuzzy images was unpleasant, reading was fun. In the walking chapter, he flees Dallas, his hometown, for London, a city in which walking is normal, not a chore or something to be avoided (Dallas and much of modern America, apart from the older cities of the East and Midwest, are simply too big and, in the case of Dallas, too hot to walk in comfortably). Writing in a leisurely manner, Spiegelman takes time to make his points and, whatever activity hes engaged in at the moment, to be a thoughtful, genial companion."June Sawyers, Booklist (starred review)
"Some books are easy companions, and this essay collection, in which Spiegelman speaks affectionately of them, can join their ranks. His top seven picks for happiness are reading, walking, looking, dancing, listening, swimming and writing activities that are free and accessible to anyone with a library card and a pair of comfortable shoes. As old-fashioned, and occasionally charming, as a Lawrence Welk waltz, Spiegelman proclaims his suspicion of new technology that might replace the book and regrets dancing that doesn't involve a partner and a prescribed step. 'To today's sufferers, melancholics, and ordinary neurotics, can we safely say, 'Throw out your Prozac, pick up your Wordsworth?' The advice would revolutionize the health industry.' Spiegelman, editor of the Southwest Review and professor of English at Southern Methodist University, is no self-help guru, but he is an intelligent, well-read and kindly soul. Back in the good old days, he found a set of activities that made him happy, and knows he's not the first to write on these subjects. But can a happiness-obsessed society accept that the simple act of looking at one painting all afternoon can make all the difference?" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
Spiegelman takes a look at the possibilities for achieving ordinary happiness without recourse to either religion or drugs. In this erudite and frequently hilarious book of essays, he discusses seven activities that lead naturally and easily to a sense of well-being.