Friday, August 23, 2019

Book Review: Measure Yourself Against the Earth by Mark Kingwell - A Series of Essays

Wide-ranging essays on contemporary life.

In 24 shrewd, witty, insightful essays, cultural critic Kingwell (Philosophy/Univ. of Toronto; Unruly Voices: Essays on Democracy, Civility, and the Human Imagination, 2012, etc.) returns to many of his favorite themes: fly-fishing, the cityscape, art, and literature. Several consider the gifts of a city, particularly Toronto, where the author revels in walking, “the greatest unpriced pleasure there is,” a “modern art form.” Walking affords encounters with “our fellow citizens. If you live in a large city, learning how to walk the streets is something you must master as a physical expression of belonging.” With equal enthusiasm, Kingwell extols the virtues of bars (“crucibles of human behavior”), the novels of Carl Van Vechten and Michael Arlen, and the “peculiar vitality and personality” of punctuation marks, especially the indispensable serial comma. Some essays, such as a long, annotated piece on Kierkegaard and procrastination, seem addressed more to academic than general—though sophisticated—readers. But most consider contemporary issues, such as the infiltration of robots into the workplace, the meaning of leisure, the difficulty of social mobility (which seems, he believes, “decisively obliterated”), and the future of the book in the digital age. Optimistic about “the endurance of long-form reading,” Kingwell worries less about the death of the printed book than about the possibility of increasing worldwide literacy. Reading fiction, he believes, may not be a means to becoming a better person, but he admits that novels inspire a “contemplative mode of being...which underwrites everything else.” Self-awareness, though, can be achieved through fly-fishing, which involves “dynamic tension” and a “loose-muscled happy feeling in the body….The day acquires clarity, and that feeling of purpose we seek even when engaged in something pointless—beautiful and pointless.”

An engaging collection from an urbane, observant writer of admirably lucid prose.

My Comments:  These essays are informative and enlightening. The humour makes it an easy read. Kingwell's portrayal of walking is well-founded and relatable.   It is an excellent read that covers a variety of topics that would appeal to a diverse group of readers.  Well done!

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