Last week’s blog was about the book Suttree. Recalling the challenges of reading that book brought up memories of other books that have given me a tough time. Anything by Emerson fits that description. Also it reminded me of the following bizarre little story:

Many years ago I read a crime novel where the main character suffered from anxiety every time his case went sideways. I don’t remember the name of the book nor the name of the author. What I do remember is that the protagonist read Marcus Aurelius to pull himself out of his funks. The novelist never explained the philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, never told the reader what the troubled man got out of the philosophy – just that the guy would sit down with a drink, open to a random page in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and, after reading a few passages, have the wherewithal to carry on. 

One morning I was reading this particular crime novel downtown in Jules Coffee Shop, which has an adjoining doorway to Pearl Street Books. I held my spot in the coffee shop by leaving the book and a mug of black coffee on the table, then quickly ducked into the bookstore to peruse the philosophy section. I looked under A for Aurelius, M for Marcus, even R for Roman. For some reason, I knew Marcus Aurelius was a Stoic (although I did not know at the time what it meant to be a Stoic), so I looked under S as well. The philosophy section was surprisingly large, but didn’t have what I was looking for. Pearl Street Books is a used bookstore, so there will always be gaps in its collection. When I looked in the A’s, there were four different editions of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, but nothing by Marcus Aurelius. As I turned to go back to the coffee shop, my foot connected with a book lying on the floor, and I sent it skittering across the hardwood floor. My initial thought was that the book could not have been there when I first entered the shop. Had it been, I would have seen it or kicked it or at least stepped on it on the way in. I retrieved the book and, of course, it was The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. 

If the book had been where it was supposed to be, I would have leafed through it for a minute or two and then put it back on the shelf. Because it had been put on the floor for me to kick and then scurry after like it was a runaway toddler, I bought it. Whether coincidence, serendipity, or synchronicity, I wasn’t going to tempt the fates just to save a few bucks. Back in the coffee shop, I put the crime novel aside and tried to figure out the magic within The Meditations. After reading as much as my head could handle in one sitting, I concluded that the small volume consisted of a hundred different ways to say, “Buck up.” I believe this to be good advice, but to this day I cannot figure out why I needed to be reminded of it.

Steven Simpson