Daniel Klein had just decided to major in philosophy while a student at Harvard when he began to jot down in a notebook what he called his "Pithies." These were an eclectic collection of famous quotes to which he enthusiastically added his comments as he began a lifelong pursuit.
Klein had set aside the notebook while in his mid-30s, but as he moved into his 70s, the author found it again while packing away some books. Reading through those earliest inked entries after four decades, Klein says he was at first bemused hearing the voice of his younger self. But over time he was pulled backed once again to that same format in renewed pursuit of "best way to live life."
The result was his new volume, "Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It — Wisdom of the Great Philosophers on How to Live."
Klein, who has a home in Great Barrington, is the previous best-selling author of "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar" and "Travels with Epicurus," with his friend Thomas Cathcart. In the new book, published late last year by Penquin Books, he has included some of the original quotes and added some new ones, along with his observations on these slices of the wisdom of the ages.
The title of the book is a quote from American philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, which Klein includes as the last chapter.
"This is the one that prompted me to close the book on "Pithies" in my midthirties," he writes. "The whole enterprise stuck me as naïve and futile. Enough already."
Beneath the Niebuhr quote in his notebook, he had scribbled, "Now you tell me!"
In his book prologue, Klein writes, "My first reaction when I leafed through the notebook these decades later was to cringe at how naïve I had been What could I have been thinking?"
He adds, however, that soon enough he recognized the value of looking at life and philosophy from the opposite end of life, and "some 40 years later, here I am again, fascinated by these philosophers' ideas about how to live."
Eventually, Klein writes, "I started jotting down new thoughts about those philosophers' quotes I had long ago copied in that notebook. And then I started collecting new quotes and noodling about them, too."
The result in this 210-page volume is an entertaining, informative and thought-provoking glimpse into Klein's lifelong quest for the best way to live one's life. It's one that also delivers philosophical discussion without the eye glaze many readers no doubt associate with the subject.
Beyond that, the book is a deft introduction to some of the more profound realms of human thought, which rarely seem to concern or inspire or even emerge in the talking heads telling us all day, every day what to believe and how to live.
Readers will encounter or become reacquainted with Epicurus, Aristotle, George Santayana, Ecclesiastes, Machiavelli, Samuel Beckett, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Friedrich Nietzsche, Albert Camus, and several others. An all-star lineup, in other words.
For most people, these are names that at the least ring a bell — from some course or other or some book or other they've read, or pretended to read while in school. Klein goes beyond ringing bells, though, providing the reader with a gentle spur toward further reading about the person or a school of philosophical thought.
Concerning a quote by Aristotle — "Love is composed of a single soul inhabiting two bodies" — Klein begins his "Pithies" comments with, "If Aristotle had had a clue to how many relationships he would wreck with these ten simple words, he might have reconsidered composing them."
Below an Emerson quote — "It is one of the blessings of old friends that you can afford to be stupid with them" — Klein reflects, "Through the ages, an impressive number of philosophers — from hedonists to transcendentalists — have rated friendship as life's greatest pleasure. Not sex, not extreme sports, not even coming up with an original philosophic insight — but simply having a very good friend."
The Nietzsche quote is "The secret of greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously!"
Klein's reaction starts off: "Just as I was reveling in the euphoria of existential freedom, a college friend handed me a copy of Nietzsche's 'Thus Spake Zarathustra.' It was her way of saying to me, 'Think again, buster.'"
His book is an intriguing sampler that should smoothly open hundreds of doors for any inquisitive mind. Likewise, it's accessible enough to reach anyone who has ever pondered the meaning of life.
The book is available in hardcover at bookstores and online, including as an ebook.
'Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It,' by Daniel Klein
Penguin Books, Hardcover $20