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[whitespace] Kiss and Tell
Kiss & Tell
St Martin's Press, 272 pages; $13 paper

The Consolations of Philosophy
Vintage Books; 272 pages; $12.95 paper

How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel
Vintage Books; 197 pages; $12 paper

All by Alain de Botton

Reading Philosophy for Fun and Profit

Alain de Botton can make it true for you

By Traci Vogel

LET'S FACE IT: few people turn to philosophy to escape. Philosophy is boring stuff to read. It's stiff medicine, with no grape flavor to help it down. It may be packed with soul-saving enlightenment, but you have to stomach a lot of big words and convoluted sentences to get there. Not only do writers of philosophy tend to favor vague analogies, but they even invent their own terminology to describe this squishiness, so you end up having to wade through pages and pages of obscure definition before you even get to the idea itself.

Then there's self-help, which is no better. Reading self-help can be like being trapped in a room with a self-righteous New Age car salesman--and then being forced to fill out a questionnaire about it.

So where does a self-respecting escapist go to find some answers these days?

Enter Alain de Botton: an overeducated (Oxford), prematurely balding Englishman with a crackling dry wit. An established novelist in his own right, de Botton has in recent years become more well known for his nonfiction books, all of which apply scholarly thinking to real-life situations in ways that are both enlightening and entertaining.

De Botton sets out to debunk the big word/boring/smart person parallel; he laments in his most recent book, The Consolations of Philosophy, the conundrum that "it is common to assume that we are dealing with a highly intelligent book when we cease to understand it. Profound ideas cannot, after all, be explained in the language of children."

Happily, de Botton then goes on to explain profound ideas in language that, if not exactly that of children, is certainly highly approachable. The title, "consolations," is not a joke--there are, we find out, actual, edifying ideas in philosophy, things we can take home and think about at night.

DE BOTTON'S GIFT is that he is an intellectual with a very practical how-to streak alongside a self-effacing sense of humor. In taking examples from his own life he offers himself up as a kind of straw man. Like that most difficult of famous authors, Proust, whom he reveals as a gossip in How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel, he loves to dish gossip; unlike Proust, he doesn't take 10,000 pages to do so.

In one of his earlier books, for example, titled Kiss & Tell, he resolves to take to heart the famous Samuel Johnson assertion that every life is a subject worthy of the biographer, and write the biography of his current girlfriend. The result, unexpectedly, is an often hilarious depiction of that male/female divide that has sustained standup comics and philosophers alike for many centuries. History becomes highly personal. After all, he writes, "one may suggest a connection between attachment and the biographical impulse, that is, an impulse to know another fully. Every attachment involves a more or less conscious process of biography [as one works out dates, characteristics, favoured wash cycles and snacks ...], much as a true biography demands a more or less conscious emotional relationship between author and subject." That de Botton discovers this relationship reveals his refreshing ability to bring academics back down to earth.

So while nobody's idea of escapist reading is Frederick Nietszche, and few peoples' idea of real knowledge comes from self-help books, Alain de Botton finds the happy medium between the two, offering painless advice on a subject dear to our hearts these days: How to Feel Things. After all, as de Botton writes in Proust, "feeling things (which usually means feeling them painfully) is at some level linked to the acquisition of knowledge."

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From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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