What does it mean to be happy? Ever since the Founding Fathers invited every citizen to join the pursuit of happiness, Americans have been studying and pining for that elusive state of mind. But rather than explaining happiness, in "Seven Pleasures" Willard Spiegelman demonstrates it: he immerses usin the joyful, illuminating practice of seven simple pleasures --dancing, reading, walking, looking, listening, swimming, and writing--and evokes all the satisfactions they offer. Lighthearted, insightful, and deeply felt, "Seven Pleasures "is a portrait of pure enjoyment. 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 Independence--George 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 families--that they're all alike and for that reason presumably uninteresting--set 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 life--or, 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 feel--Mr. Spiegelman likens the approach to the parsing of a sentence in Latin class--you 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 ruffles--the 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 lit--books that play on their authors' damaged lives--answers 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 here--as a 'loving amateur'--about happiness and 'the pleasurable things you can do to