What is the meaning of life? It is a question that has haunted drunk teenagers and philosophers since the invention of beer and philosophy respectively. Is there even such a thing as an extrinsic meaning of life? And if the meaning of life is in actuality created, not discovered, then how does one go about carving the good life out of the hard rock of daily routine, with all of its disappointments and trivialities?
Broadly speaking, these are the questions that Daniel Klein orbits around, examining, questioning and mulling over. I say ‘orbits’ intentionally. With subtle humour, wit and skill, Klein circles topics, whilst at the same time holding himself at a distance–not aloof–but perhaps cautious, even suspicious of the clever ideas he examines. This is a curious, interesting approach. It reflects a perspective where Klein, now approaching his ninetieth decade, seems to have decided that the important things in life may have less to do with clever twists of philosophic wit after all, and maybe more to do with afternoons in a lazy sunlit garden with the family dog and one’s own thoughts.
The inceptive idea behind Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life They Change It arose when the older, more life-lived Daniel Klein rediscovered a small much-thumbed notebook that the younger Daniel Klein had once used as a place to store and think over small, mind-catching philosophical aphorisms of the pithy sort. The younger Klein actually called his collection, Pithies, and now, years later, the older Klein returns to it, thumbing through the dusty words, and putting down to paper what he thinks of these pithies now, with the benefit of hindsight and experience.
It makes for an interesting journey, if one that a reader needs to come to in the right frame of mind. Do not come to this book looking for answers. In fact, do not come to this book looking for deep, profound discussion that might imply answers. I suspect David Klein himself would be ironically amused at the idea that anyone could find out from a stranger how to live the good life with perfect clairvoyance of perception. So, this is not a book of answers. Rather, I think, it is a book of questions. The collection of witticisms serves to form a board from which Klein can leap and go swimming about in the brine of philosophical thought. But this is no academic discourse either. It is a light hearted swim. A swim full of humour and faintly self-deprecating reflection. After all, had David Klein actually thought himself to have found the meaning of life, this small red-jacketed publication would presumably have sported a less ironic and shorter title.
So what does Klein do here? What can you expect? Klein presents and discusses a breadth of philosophical quips, spanning hedonism, to nihilism and existentialism, right across the spectrum to pure empiricists and ethicists. We even get the odd particle physicist and mathematician quipping in. A few favourite creative contemplators of human nature get a show in too: Aldous Huxley, Samuel Beckett and Camus are all represented. You can expect a deeply personal work: and really, it would be very odd, if a work like this was not deeply personal. And this means that although Klein’s musings are in themselves interesting, the book as a whole really serves to shine a light onto philosophical chinks into which your mind can burrow rather than acting to open up fully wide doors. There is little of the disposable, pre-digested pap of popular philosophy here. What self-helpy undertones do come to the surface are mostly Klein’s thoughts on how to help his own self, rather than yours. The overwhelming message might well be, if anyone is going to help you figure out your mess of a life, it is you. And really, that’s okay. Because in the end, that’s what everyone has had to do from the beginning of beer and philosophy anyway. From Aristotle to Hume to Betram Russell, great thinkers have always had to think their own way into their own best life. You are in good company should you decide to do the same.
The structure of the book also contributes to a general sense that the work is not meant to be a how-to guide on life, dipped into at random, nor a deeply academic work for the philosophically endowed. There is no table of contents… the act of the reading the work is an act of exploration and journeying with Klein, alongside him. You need to trust him to not lead you astray, or at least not too far astray. You know. Just far enough astray to be fun. Likewise, there is no index, which a heftier, more serious tome would demand. But there is a structure underlying the work. The first half of the book functions much more like a primer about various philosophical takes on life that have captured Klein’s imagination at some point in his life. The second half wanders deeper into thickets of personal thought. Perhaps the two halves could be seen as introduction and exploration? In any instance, the structure works well.
Although a reader could probably tear through the whole work in a single afternoon, for my money, I wouldd suggest putting the book down every now and again–after each entry, or every few entries–just to allow yourself some time to consider your own thoughts. Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life They Change It is the sort of book that will give back to you in measure for that which you are willing to bring to it. For the message here is not seek, and you shall find. Rather it is, think, and you shall have thought.
And to think, to mull, to consider and to wonder: are these not worthy pursuits in and of themselves? Regardless of whether the real meaning life should ever step forward.