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Alain de Boton

Books England

Summer Reading

The New Yorker summer fiction issue arrived this week, which got me thinking about summer reading. In my California days, summer reading meant something along the lines of reading The Da Vinci Code by a hotel pool while sipping on an over-priced piña colada at 11AM without guilt. In other words, summer reading was a blissful reprieve from standards, both literary and moral, observed in other seasons.

Summer reading this year has meant something altogether different. Here in England it is the run up to the longest day of the year, and we have been enjoying daylight until nearly 10PM for weeks. On those mid-week nights when husband is in London and I am in the Cotswolds on my own, I retire to bed by 9:30PM for a benign menage a trois with my French companions, Marcel and his precocious, mommy- obsessed protagonist of In Search of Lost Time, to enjoy some day lit summer reading. In reading Proust I am not abandoning my customary June relaxation of standards but rather making good on an old—2009—new year’s resolution to finally read the fabled author. (The truth is I wanted to read Alain de Boton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life, but I didn’t feel entitled to do so without having attempted Proust first.) The novel is slow going, dense stuff but not without its rewards. There was the madeleine incident early on and, later in Combray, I recognized the compulsion to capture a place — the landscape and seasons and walking through them—that I feel about the Cotswolds.

Husband and I will be in the Lake District this weekend for the longest day of the year, enjoying an early celebration of our ninth anniversary. The hotel in Elterwater is a converted country house with the most perfect lounge for reading, complete with comfortable chairs, a panoramic view of the lake and surrounding fells, and a kettle and biscuits. (Even husband, who finds movie watching to be a far superior form of leisure to reading—in which he only indulges via The Economist and Hollywood biographies—can read for hours in this lounge.) I may even indulge myself and pack the Alain de Boton, never mind the fact that I’m not even half-way through the Proust.

Books England

Hey Lady

My new year’s resolution last year was to read something by Proust. I really wanted to read Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life but somehow that didn’t see like a very legitimate thing to do without having read anything by Proust first. A year later the red spine of volume one of In Search of Lost Time is still staring back at me from my bedside table, nestled between Any Human Heart and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Unlike those book club mandated tomes, the pages of ISOLT remain unsullied by my nub nailed fingers.

So this year I made another new year’s resolution, one that would enable me to keep last year’s, albeit behind schedule. I’d let my subscription to The New Yorker expire in February and reallocate NYer reading time to ISOLT. It seemed like a good plan until this morning when Rachel Johnson, sister of the slightly mad Boris the mayor of London, appeared on BBC Breakfast to talk about the magazine she is now editing, The Lady.

Now why didn’t anybody tell me about The Lady? It’s taken me years to unravel so many of the mysteries of proper British life, things like marmite, the difference between hunting and shooting, and what a gilet is and how you pronounce it. And yet all along—125 years to be exact —there has been a magazine to guide me in the ways of British ladyship. According to the news anchor its reputation of late has been the best place to advertise if you are in search of a nanny, but Ms. Johnson has livened up the old dowager. It even has literary and Cotswoldian links, having been established by the grandfather of the Mitford sisters. Coming up on my one year anniversary of becoming a Brit I feel I am practically a lady anyway. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate than subscribing….to yet another weekly.


The Town that Architects Forgot

Swindon is a “new town” which is British for a town that architects forgot. I had an interview there recently for a job as an IT director at a computing society. I don’t particularly want to be the IT director at a computing society but my company is in the middle of laying off half the global workforce and so it seemed like I should at least take advantage of the interview practice.Husband was very excited about this interview. He would be excited if I had an interview for a job as a window washer in Swindon. This is because Swindon is within commuting distance of our cottage in the Cotswolds. His vision: I could live full-time in the Cotswolds, we could sell or rent our London flat, and he could downsize to a studio during the week when he needs to be there. This is one step closer to his dream of a full-time life in the country. He thinks if I jump first this will embolden him to make the entrepreneurial move he dreams of in a year or so’s time.


We decided to drive to Swindon on the Sunday before the interview to scope it out. It was raining and cold and there was supposedly a movie theatre there to help us take our minds off the fact that we don’t seem to be having a summer this year. We drove to the train station first. Husband loves train stations and bemoaning the demise of the steam railways that used to connect many of the Cotswolds villages. Swindon in the rain was the most depressing place I’ve ever been. How could a city on the edge of the Cotswolds look this way? It shouldn’t be allowed.

I was impatient and wanted to leave the train station. Husband shouted, I pouted, and we drove back to our cottage without seeing a movie.I know it’s unrealistic to think I can work in a building that looks like the inside of the Mondrian hotel on the Sunset Strip forever, especially now that my company is owned by a cost conscious private equity firm. But for now that is where I work, all gleaming white and glass, nestled in the posh London neighborhood of Kensington, moments from Hyde Park and Holland Park and the only Whole Foods in England (another topic worthy of it’s own blog – oh the glory).

Aesthetics matter. I’m not just being shallow: philosophers know this and Alain de Botton wrote a whole book about it, The Architecture of Happiness.After the interview I was a little more optimistic. The building is in an office park with all the charm of Heathrow, but you get your own parking space. After three years of buses and tubes in London, the idea of driving to work and having a parking space reminds me of life in L.A. in a good way – lots of commute time to listen to Radio 4, the KCRW equivalent. The guy who interviewed me and would be my boss was nice, I could definitely work for him. As he walked me out of the office after the interview he pointed out a basket of fruit on a filing cabinet and informed me that free fruit was a perk of working at the company. He was being serious. I didn’t think it a good time to tell him we have a bar at my office. A week later I learned I didn’t get the job. Something about an epiphany when interviewing another candidate that they needed a much more technical person than spec’d. He didn’t even ask me any stupid technical questions! Nevermind how I feel about Swindon, my pride was hurt. If anybody’s looking for me I’ll be taking solace in Schopenhauer.