The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User's Manual

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The Millions Top Ten: August 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for August.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
4 months

2.


Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead
1 month

3.
3.

Normal People
4 months

4.
4.

The New Me

4 months

5.
9.

The Nickel Boys
2 months

6.


Pieces for the Left Hand: Stories

1 month

7.
6.

The Golden State
5 months

8.


Inland
1 month

9.


The Need
1 month

10.


The Memory Police
1 month

Major shakeups this month with fully half of the Top Ten being populated by newcomers. Led by Olga Tokarczuk, whose novel Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead has skyrocketed up to second position on our list, the pack also includes J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand, Téa Obreht’s Inland, Helen Phillips’s The Need, and Yoko Ogawa’s The Memory Police. Welcome, all. For the record, four of these five were listed in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview.

Tokarczuk’s ascent up our list makes sense, as “mystical detective novel[s]” are usually sure to excite, but as Gabe Habash explained in his review for our site:
… with Tokarczuk behind the murder mystery, the whodunit is a sort of Trojan horse, a container for her to explore, with characteristic complexity and rigor, a whole host of deeper concerns, including animal rights, morality, fate, and how one life fits into the world around it. For her, simply finding out the identity of the murderer would be boring.
Meanwhile, something interesting is happening with Pieces for the Left Hand and The Need: the author of the latter reviewed the former’s work for our site last month. In her piece, Helen Phillips dubbed J. Robert Lennon’s Pieces for the Left Hand “the best book you’ve never read,” but obviously that statement’s not so true anymore. The strength of that review shot both works into this month’s Top Ten.

Two of this month’s new titles filled spaces vacated by The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms and Educated, both of which graduated to our Hall of Fame. The other three newcomers replaced Slave Old Man, Becoming, and Conversations with Friends, each of which dropped out of the running.

This month’s near misses included: How to Be an Antiracist and Ducks, Newburyport. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: July 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for July.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
6 months

2.
4.

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
3 months

3.
5.

Normal People
3 months

4.
7.

The New Me

3 months

5.
6.

Educated: A Memoir
6 months

6.
10.

The Golden State

4 months

7.
9.

Slave Old Man
2 months

8.
8.

Becoming
3 months

9.


The Nickel Boys
1 month

10.


Conversations with Friends
1 month

Both Milkman by Anna Burns and Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer graduated to our site’s Hall of Fame this month, marking each author’s first appearance on that hallowed list. Dreyer’s book also becomes the first style guide to appear on a list otherwise dominated by novels, albeit interspersed with occasional rarities including at least one treatise on sharpening pencils.

Meanwhile it’s heartening to see former site editor Lydia Kiesling’s debut novel The Golden State ascend toward the upper-half of this month’s Top Ten. The book belongs in your hands and on your shelves, but in order to get there it must first appear on our list. The higher it is, the farther it’s reaching, and so on.

Newcomers on this month’s list include The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead and Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney. Whitehead’s latest was recently featured in our Great Second-Half 2019 Book Preview, and surely it will soon be joined by additional titles on that massive list. (Have you read through it all yet?) It’s also noteworthy that Rooney now has two of her books listed simultaneously on our Top Ten, an extremely rare feat around these parts.

This month’s near misses included: Selected Stories, 1968-1994 (Alice Munro), On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Fever Dream, The Great Believers, and The White Card: A Play. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: June 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for June.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

6 months

2.
3.

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
5 months

3.
4.

Milkman
6 months

4.
10.

The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual

2 months

5.
9.

Normal People
2 months

6.
6.

Educated: A Memoir

5 months

7.
8.

The New Me
2 months

8.
7.

Becoming
2 months

9.


Slave Old Man
1 month

10.


The Golden State
3 months

This month Lydia Kiesling’s The Golden State published in the United Kingdom and Australia, so it’s fitting that it returns to our list. Kiesling’s debut novel tracks its protagonist through some unique stresses of motherhood, but in so doing, as the author noted this week in an Australian interview, we experience the more universal stresses quite vividly:
It was my feeling when I had a very young child, as someone who reads a lot, that I hadn’t really seen the minute-to-minute of care-taking portrayed on the page, and it struck me as somewhat unfair … [In those moments] you feel like you’re in some sort of epic, but one that has never really been commemorated on the page—as with going to sea, or going to war—but it can feel that big even though it’s an experience that we think of as fairly mundane. That was certainly something I thought about when I sat down to write: trying to transmit some of how relentless it can feel in the moment.
Another new arrival this month is Linda Coverdale’s translation of Patrick Chamoiseau’s novel Slave Old Man, which recently won this year’s Best Translated Books Award in fiction. In an interview for our site, P.T. Smith spoke with Coverdale about her approach to translating the text:
My approach to translating has always been based on trying to make the English text reflect not just what the French says, but also what it means to native French-speakers, who are immersed—to varying degrees—in the worlds of their language, a language that has ranged widely in certain parts of the real world.
Elsewhere on this month’s list, Sally Rooney’s Normal People rose four spots to fifth position. This rise was so explosive it enabled her earlier novel, Conversations with Friends, to draft upwards as well, and now it ranks among this month’s “near misses.”

In the coming weeks, we’ll publish our annual Great Book Preview, so stay tuned for shake-ups to our list after July!

This month’s near misses included: Conversations with Friends, Last Night in Nuuk, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Congo, Inc.: Bismarck’s Testament, and My Sister, the Serial Killer. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: May 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for May.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

5 months

2.
2.

The Friend
6 months

3.
3.

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
4 months

4.
5.

Milkman

5 months

5.
6.

The William H. Gass Reader
6 months

6.
7.

Educated: A Memoir

4 months

7.
9.

Becoming
2 months

8.


The New Me
1 month

9.


Normal People
1 month

10.


The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual
1 month

Patience gets undeserved hype because persistence is the real virtue. Persistence is active; it depends on a desire to change one’s status. Persistence relies on volition. Meanwhile anything can be patient if it sits around long enough. I am thinking of this today, nine months after The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual first appeared in our Top Ten posts… among the “near misses.” Since then, Ward Farnsworth’s book, which Ed Simon called an “idiosyncratic, strange, yet convincing and useful volume,” has made seven more appearances… among the “near misses.” It was only this month, roughly 250 days since we first caught its glimpse, that the book has made it to the actual Top Ten list… in tenth position. Persistence, friends. It’s patience plus positivity.

Two true newcomers joined our Top Ten this month as well: Halle Butler’s The New Me, which came out in March, and Sally Rooney’s Normal People, which followed in April. In our Great Book Preview, Anne K. Yoder called Butler’s second novel “a skewering of the 21st-century American dream of self-betterment.” Then, in a review for our site, Freya Sanders called Rooney’s latest “an unconventional bildungsroman that explores not the power of self-determination but the idea of the self as something generated between people.”

These three books found space on this month’s list because our Hall of Fame scooped up three more: Ling Ma’s Severance, Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Kate Atkinson’s Transcription. For Ma and Atkinson, this is their first trip to our Hall, but Moshfegh has been there once before in 2017—her ticket stamped on the strength of Homesick for Another World.

Next month we inch closer to our Great Second-Half Book Preview, so buckle up.

This month’s near misses included: The Golden StateThe Great Believers, Circe, Love in the New Millennium and Last Night in Nuuk. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: April 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for April.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

4 months

2.
2.

The Friend
5 months

3.
4.

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
3 months

4.
3.

Severance

6 months

5.
7

Milkman
4 months

6.
5.

The William H. Gass Reader

5 months

7.
6.

Educated: A Memoir
3 months

8.
8.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
6 months

9.


Becoming
1 month

10.
10.

Transcription
6 months

What pairs better than Haruki Murakami and our site’s Hall of Fame? Running and The Beatles? Spaghetti and cats? This month, Murakami sent his fourth book, Killing Commendatore, to our hallowed Hall, equalling our site’s all-time record for works from a single author. (If someone ever asks you what the author has in common with David Mitchell, you’ll know what to say.)

For the most part, our list held steady from last month, with the exception of one high-profile newcomer. After spending four months in our “near misses” section, Michelle Obama’s Becoming finally cracked our April lineup. Surely Millions readers need no introduction to Obama, and don’t need to be handsold such a blockbuster memoir, but in case someone needs a nudge out there, it’s worth noting that Marta Bausells dug the audiobook in our most recent Year in Reading series. “[It] did GOOD things to me and I recommend,” Bausells wrote.

Next month a minimum of three slots should open on our list, so we should get some excitement. Stay tuned!

This month’s near misses included: The New Me, The Golden StateCirce, The Practicing Stoic: A Philosopher’s User Manual and The Great Believers. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: February 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for February.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
4.

Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

2 months

2.
1.

Washington Black

6 months

3.
3.

The Friend

3 months

4.
5.

Severance

4 months

5.


Educated: A Memoir

1 month

6.
7.

The William H. Gass Reader

3 months

7.
6.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

4 months

8.
8.

Milkman

2 months

9.
9.

Killing Commendatore

5 months

10.


The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
1 month

Spring approaches but has not yet come. It brings a fresh start, and all around buds await the best moment to bloom. Naturally, some jump the gun, and so it’s fitting that we welcome two new titles to our final Top Ten of the winter season: Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover and The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, which was edited by Kim Adrian. Even on a list with William H. Gass, snowfall’s poet laureate, there’s no stopping the season’s change.

This timing has its logic. Westover’s memoir was recently named a finalist for the National Book Award. Detailing the author’s journey from backcountry Idaho to Cambridge University, Educated underscores both the propulsive, transformative power of schooling and also the complexity of leaving family behind.

The Shell Game deals as well with transmutation, or in this case so-called “hermit crab essays.” These pieces, as Vivian Wagner explained for our site last summer, “like the creatures they’re named after, borrow the structures and forms they inhabit.” These are essays as quizzes, grocery lists, and more. “Hermit crab essays de-normalize our sense of genre, helping us to see the way that forms and screens, questionnaires and interviews all shape knowledge as much as they convey it,” Wagner writes. “For essays like these, message is always, at least in part, the medium.” (If you’re intrigued, I highly recommend Cheyenne Nimes’s “SECTION 404,” originally published in DIAGRAM, and included in Adrian’s anthology.)

Elsewhere on our list, things thrummed and lightly fiddled. Dreyer’s English rose from fourth to first. The Incendiaries is off to our Hall of Fame. Outside on bare tree branches, some leaves begin to grow.

This month’s near misses included: BecomingTranscription, Circe, and The Practicing Stoic. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: January 2019

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for January.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

Washington Black

5 months

2.
3.

The Incendiaries

6 months

3.
5.

The Friend

2 months

4.


Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style

1 month

5.
4.

Severance

3 months

6.
8.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation

2 months

7.
7.

The William H. Gass Reader

3 months

8.


Milkman

1 month

9.
9.

Killing Commendatore

4 months

10.


The Golden State
2 months

Three spaces opened on our list this month, and filling them are two newcomers and one reappearance.

First, congratulations to Tommy Orange and Aja Gabel, whose novels There There and The Ensemble were so beloved by Millions readers that they’ve been immortalized forever in the site’s Hall of Fame. On the other hand, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription dropped out of the running after four months of strong showings on our list.

Keep faith, Atkinson fans. It’s quite common for books to leave our list one month only to reappear the next. How common? Well, the exact scenario just occurred with The Golden State by Lydia Kiesling. After debuting on our list in November, the book dropped off in December and has since reappeared to kick off 2019 in 10th position. At this rate, Kiesling will be joining Orange and Gabel in our Hall of Fame next September.

Two newcomers on our list this month are Milkman by Anna Burns and Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer. Burns’s novel won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for fiction and was briefly previewed by our own Carolyn Quimby last month, and is said to be “a story of the way inaction can have enormous repercussions.” Dreyer’s English, meanwhile, was described by Kiesling in our Great 2019 Book Preview as “a guide to usage by a long-time Random House copyeditor that seems destined to become a classic.” (I’ll echo Lydia’s request: please don’t copyedit this write-up.)

Next month’s list should open up for at least one new addition to our list, but as we’ve seen time and again: sometimes those new additions are blasts from the past.

This month’s near misses included: BecomingThe Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed FormsThe Practicing Stoic, and How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: December 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for December.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
3.

There There

6 months

2.
2.

Washington Black

4 months

3.
4.

The Incendiaries

5 months

4.
9.

Severance

2 months

5.


The Friend

1 month

6.
5.

The Ensemble

6 months

7.
6.

The William H. Gass Reader

2 months

8.


My Year of Rest and Relaxation

1 month

9.
8.

Killing Commendatore

3 months

10.
7.

Transcription
4 months

The Overstory‘s reign is over, and once again Millions readers have sent a book to our Hall of Fame. It’s the 155th title to reach the Hall since we began counting in 2009, and those books represent a combined 930 months of our readers’ interest. Laid out consecutively instead of concurrently, that’s more than 77 years of reading!

In its place, There There by Tommy Orange assumes supremacy this month, leapfrogging Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black which remains in second. Both books were highly regarded by contributors in our Year in Reading series, in which Tommy Orange himself participated. I’m not saying Millions readers reward authors for publishing in the series but I’m not not saying the same.

Meanwhile two newcomers join this month’s list: My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh and The Friend by Sigrid Nunez.

Mere weeks ago, Lucia Senesi interviewed Moshfegh for The Millions, and in their wide-ranging discussion about craft and creative output, they also explored the notion of whether “writers or artists really have a gender.” Moshfegh believed so:
I think the female and male minds work very differently in their biology, the way that language has developed over the last how many thousands of years was part of the patriarchal system. Written language is inherently more male logic linearity. Femininity is more in the realm of emotional intelligence and intuition. That’s why it’s very difficult to argue between the gender. Mostly women learn how to argue like a man. So I do think that writers, maybe it’s different for visual artists, whatever everybody’s brain is different, but I do think that women writers have a different experience and sensibility than male writers, because by their very nature. I think maybe part of this whole movement for equality try to suggest that we are the same, which we are not. The work we need to do is to learn how to value both genders for the things that they’re given us.
Like There There, The Friend, which won this year’s National Book Award, was a darling of our Year in Reading series, drawing praise from seven contributors: Bryan Washington, Ada Limón, Adrienne Celt, Lucy Tan, Anisse Gross, Kamil Ahsan, and our own Anne K. Yoder. For her part, Nunez contributed to the series back in 2010, when the series was only six years old.

This month’s near misses included: Becoming, MilkmanThe Practicing Stoic, and What We Were Promised. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: November 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for November.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
2.

The Overstory

6 months

2.
7.

Washington Black

3 months

3.
5.

There There

5 months

4.
4.

The Incendiaries

4 months

5.
6.

The Ensemble

5 months

6.


The William H. Gass Reader

1 month

7.
8.

Transcription

3 months

8.
10.

Killing Commendatore

2 months

9.


Severance

1 month

10.


The Golden State
1 month

 

The winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction has reached our site’s Hall of Fame each year that the site has operated, and this month the trend continues with the ascension of Andrew Sean Greer’s Less. Joining it on that voyage is Sergio De La Pava’s Lost Empress, marking the second time De La Pava’s earned the honor since Garth Risk Hallberg profiled him back in 2012. We ran another long interview with the author earlier this year.

Meanwhile Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight has once again dropped out of our Top Ten. In the past four months it’s been on, off, on and off, flickering like a candle that can’t quite stay lit.

With three fresh spots, we welcome three newcomers to the list.

All 928 pages of The William H. Gass Reader hold sixth position, and the book enters our ranks at an appropriate time. When better than the winter, asked our own Nick Ripatrazone, to appreciate the author of “a wild, wacky horror story about snow that deserves to be rediscovered, appreciated — and, instead of Joyce — tweeted, as the snow falls upon all the living and the dead”? Nick went on to enumerate his thoughts on Gass’s work, and its transformative effects.

In the ninth spot, we find Severance, Ling Ma’s “funny, frightening, and touching debut,” which our own Adam O’Fallon Price called “a bildungsroman, a survival tale, and satire of late capitalist millennial angst in one book” in his teaser for our Great 2018 Book Preview. Ma has since contributed to our ongoing Year in Reading series, recommending a newly reprinted novella first published in 1982. To find out which, you’ll have to read the entry for yourself.

Finally, Millions editor Lydia Kiesling’s novel The Golden State makes its first appearance on our Top Ten. As of this writing, four Year in Reading participants have included the book in their lists: Angela Garbes, Edan Lepucki, Lauren Wilkinson, and Crystal Hana Kim. (They won’t be the last.) “It was one of several books I read that also complicate the conventional ways we view and talk about motherhood,” Garbes wrote. “The novel’s anxiety-laced vulnerability, its at once mundane and urgent first person narration, was a revelation,” Lepucki added.

Next month’s list should be shaken up quite a bit by the rest of the Year in Reading series, which reliably bloats everyone’s “to read” piles just in time for the New Year.

This month’s near misses included: The Practicing StoicLake Success, The Friend, and What We Were Promised. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: October 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for October.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Less

6 months

2.
2.

The Overstory

5 months

3.
3.

Lost Empress

6 months

4.
5.

The Incendiaries

3 months

5.
4.

There There

4 months

6.
7.

The Ensemble

4 months

7.
9.

Washington Black

2 months

8.
10.

Transcription

2 months

9.


Warlight

3 months

10.


Killing Commendatore

1 month

 

Only the lightest, feather soft jostling on the top half of our list this month, as R.O. Kwon’s The Incendiaries trades places with Tommy Orange’s There There. From there, things get more interesting. First, two books graduated to our Hall of Fame: Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad and Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering. It’s the first time either author has had the honor, and this move freed up two new spaces on the list.

One of those spaces was filled by Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight, which rejoins our rankings in ninth position after taking a one-month hiatus.

The other space was filled by Haruki Murakami’s Killing Commendatore, which our own Hannah Gersen described as a “new novel … about a freshly divorced painter who moves to the mountains, where he finds an eerie and powerful painting called ‘Killing Commendatore.'” Of course, when it comes to Murakami, simple descriptions belie subtle unsettlement. “Mysteries proliferate,” Gersen continues, “and you will keep reading—not because you are expecting resolution but because it’s Murakami, and you’re under his spell.”

Of the five “near misses” this month, four appeared in our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview. The Practicing Stoic, which did not, is Ward Farnsworth’s “idiosyncratic, strange, yet convincing and useful volume,” according to Ed Simon, offering a novel corrective to the popular understanding of Stoicism. “The Practicing Stoic is one of many philosophical self-help books, contending with the primordial question: ‘How am I to live?'” Simon continues as he situates it within the context of several others in the canon. Additionally, Stoicism itself proves valuable in how it “help[s] us cope with the ever-mounting anxieties of postmodernity, the daily thrum of Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds, the queasy push notifications and the indignities of being a cog in the shaky edifice of late capitalism (or whatever).”

Next month two more spots should open on our list for two newcomers, and there’s only one way to find out which.

This month’s near misses included: SeveranceThe Golden State, Lake Success, The Practicing Stoic, and What We Were Promised. See Also: Last month’s list.

The Millions Top Ten: September 2018

We spend plenty of time here on The Millions telling all of you what we’ve been reading, but we are also quite interested in hearing about what you’ve been reading. By looking at our Amazon stats, we can see what books Millions readers have been buying, and we decided it would be fun to use those stats to find out what books have been most popular with our readers in recent months. Below you’ll find our Millions Top Ten list for September.

This Month
Last Month

Title
On List

1.
1.

Less

5 months

2.
5.

The Overstory

4 months

3.
2.

Lost Empress

5 months

4.
8.

There There

3 months

5.
7.

The Incendiaries

2 months

6.
4.

Frankenstein in Baghdad

6 months

7.
3.

The Ensemble

3 months

8.
6.

The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath

6 months

9.


Washington Black

1 month

10.


Transcription

1 month

 

Pulitzer-winner Andrew Sean Greer holds this month’s top spot with his latest novel, Less. Two more months of strong sales and he’ll ascend to our Hall of Fame, just as Leslie Jamison (The Recovering) and Ahmed Saadawi (Frankenstein in Baghdad) seem poised to do in October.

One of two newcomers this month is Esi Edugyan, whose Booker-shortlisted novel Washington Black is based on a famous 19th-century criminal case and tells the story of an 11-year-old slave’s incredible journey from the cane fields of the Caribbean to the Arctic, London, and Morocco. “In its rich details and finely tuned ear for language,” wrote Martha Anne Toll for our site last week, “the book creates a virtual world, immersing the reader in antebellum America and Canada as well as in Victorian England.”

Edugyan is joined on our list by Kate Atkinson, whose new period novel Transcription focuses on a female spy, recruited by MI5 at age 18 to monitor fascist sympathizers. “As a fangirl of both the virtuosic Life After Life and of her Jackson Brody detective novels, I barely need to see a review to get excited about a new Atkinson novel,” wrote Sonya Chung in our Great Second-Half 2018 Book Preview, and evidently her feelings are shared by many Millions readers alike.

Spots for both books were opened when Warlight and The Mars Room dropped from our ranks. Elsewhere on the list, shuffling abounds. The Overstory rose to second position after being shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and There There rose as well after being longlisted for the National Book Award.

Meanwhile, if you’ll turn your attention to this month’s “near misses” below, you’ll see The Golden State, the debut novel from Lydia Kiesling, our intrepid editor. Longtime readers of this site are no doubt familiar with Lydia’s brand of antic, incisive writing – she’s one of the few authors who’ve made me laugh and tear up in the same piece – but prepared as I was, I’ll admit this book floored me in the best way. Not only is it an engrossing depiction of a very particular parent’s mind, but it’s also an exploration of what it means to connect with others, raise them, be influenced and repulsed by them, as well as overwhelmed by them alike. As a bonus, there’s also an absolutely ruthless and necessary skewering of modern university administrative work, and the entire story vibrates with an extreme sense of place. I cannot wait to read what Lydia writes next and in the meantime I encourage you all to check this one out.

This month’s near misses included: Severance, The Practicing Stoic, and The Golden State. See Also: Last month’s list.

Thinking Makes It So: Ward Farnsworth Reframes the Stoics with Wit and Insight

Seneca’s suicide, at the order of the emperor Nero, presents a macabre scene. Previously adviser to the fickle, impetuous, paranoid, thin-skinned emperor, Seneca was erroneously implicated in an assassination plot and was ordered to take his own life. Seneca’s wife, Pompeia Paulina, distraught at her aged husband’s sentence, convinced him that they should die together, and so both opened their veins in the hope of expiring at the same moment.

Hearing of this, Nero intervened and Pompeia was spirited away and patched up, the philosopher condemned to die alone. Scholar Simon Critchley writes in his irreverent and appropriately titled The Book of Dead Philosophers that Seneca’s “death is more tragicomic than heroic.” Critchley explains that “because of an aged frame attenuated by a frugal diet,” Seneca’s blood was too thin; he requested the hemlock in imitation of Socrates, but the poison didn’t take. Finally, he was placed in a scalding bath and suffocated to death with steam, like an ancient Roman Rasputin ultimately done in by the shower.

Seneca was a theorist of Stoicism, that classical philosophical school drawing its name from the “Stoa Poikile,” the painted porch at Athens’ agora where the earliest proponents taught. Stoics recommended living according to reason and virtue; they extolled moderation above all things and advocated facing fortune and adversity, even death, alike with an even temper. Sixteenth-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne contended that to “study philosophy is to learn to die.” Montaigne had in mind the lessons of Seneca himself, who argued that “He who has learned how to die has unlearned slavery,” for it may be a “great deed to conquer Carthage, but a greater deed to conquer death.” Critchley explains that for Seneca, the “important thing is to be prepared for death, to be courageous.”

As with Socrates, whose death was famously depicted by the neoclassical French painter Jacques-Louis David as a variety of class seminar that happened to end with the teacher’s suicide, Seneca’s execution provides means to contemplate the philosophical end. Spanish artist Manuel Dominguez Sanchez presented the subject in his 1871 painting “The Suicide of Seneca,” showing us the elderly, emaciated, pale body of the philosopher with his arm over the side of the bathtub like Jean-Paul Marat in David’s more famous painting. One of Seneca’s students, in a seemingly non-Stoic pose, lies slumped near the corpse, grieving with face obscured. To the back left a crowd of calmer men stand, but of the corpse itself it’s impossible to say whether Seneca met eternity with courage or not. Yet if there is any lesson about Stoicism for its critics, it might as well be in the waxy pallor of Seneca’s languid body, for the very word “Stoicism” has long connoted insult, signifying the stern, unemotional, robotic, unforgiving ethos of somebody who lives life as if they were already a corpse.

According to Ward Farnsworth, that understanding is wrong, and he exonerates an unfairly impugned philosophy in his idiosyncratic, strange, yet convincing and useful volume The Practicing Stoic: A Philosophical User’s Manual. Dean of the University of Texas School of Law and former clerk for retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, Farnsworth previously authored two well-received books: Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric and Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, and as with those earlier volumes, his tone is erudite, patient, and at times dryly whimsical.

Contrary to being stern and unfeeling, Farnsworth argues that Stoicism is “a humble philosophy … a regimen for training the mind” that is deeply concerned with others and is fundamentally a “form of psychological hygiene.” Stoicism shares with the similarly maligned ancient philosophy Epicureanism a concern with “human nature and its management,” eschewing abstraction for pragmatism, metaphysics for what actually works. Farnsworth explains that the Stoics were “highly practical,” having “offered solution to the problems of everyday life, and advice about how to overcome our irrationalities.” As part of his defense, Farnsworth hopes to produce an actual guide for living the Stoic life, as based on concisely presenting “what the Stoics themselves said.”

A succinct expression could be summarized in Marcus Aurelias’s assertion that “If any external thing causes you distress, it is not the thing itself that troubles you but your own judgment about it. And this you have the power to eliminate now.” From that observation comes all of Stoicism’s insights; Seneca’s approach to life is that “We must make it our aim to have already lived long enough,” and his position on acquisition is that the “shortest way to riches is to despise riches.” Human life is buffeted too much by arbitrary “externals,” by the desire for wealth, acclaim, sex, power, and so on, but the feeding of the beast never brings respite, for the beast can always hunger more. Rather, tranquility is attained by learning to silence the beast.

The Practicing Stoic is organized into 12 “lessons,” ranging from how to approach death to how to contend with adversity, desire, and emotion. In pursuit of those queries, he gathers short selections from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius (who was an emperor as well as a philosopher), whose lives briefly overlapped during the first century of the Common Era when men like Caligula, Claudius, and Nero reigned in a manner that was anything but even-tempered and moderate.

Several later “students,” including Montaigne, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith, and Arthur Schopenhauer, are included, naturally raising the question: Why those philosophers and not others? Why not Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, or the Buddha, whose approach to suffering and detachment is shockingly similar to that of the Stoics? For that matter, in giving modern Stoics their due, an argument could be made for Bill W., author of the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous which explored a sort of folk-cognitive-behavioral version of the doctrine and is arguably the most widely read “Stoic” text in the world today. What all of these varied figures share is the principle that “We should stake our well-being on what we can control and let go of attachment to what we cannot.”

Farnsworth explores manifestations of that axiom, providing short, elegant commentary on quotes that contend with whatever is under discussion. Despite sometimes being dry, he is insightful; though he is occasionally repetitive, he is convincing. Farnworth’s prose, is, well, stoic, but it’s also useful—as it should be. As Farnsworth writes, “A large share of Stoicism might be viewed, in effect, as interpretation of two famous inscriptions above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi: know thyself; nothing in excess.” What could be more helpful than that?

The Practicing Stoic is one of many philosophical self-help books, contending with the primordial question: “How am I to live?” Julian Baggini has made a cottage industry out of the genre, having authored The Philosopher’s Toolkit: A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods, What’s It All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life, and The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World. Alain de Botton rivals Baggini; his “School of Life” is “devoted to developing emotional intelligence,” and he cribbed from Boethius with his The Consolations of Philosophy, considered God (or the lack thereof) in Religion for Atheists, and penned the amazingly titled How Proust Can Change Your Life—even if the French novelist isn’t a philosopher, he’s at least philosophical.

Farnsworth hasn’t even cornered the market on Stoicism alone, as there is A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine, Massimo Piglucci’s How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, and even The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living (prepared for leap years), by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, including more scholarly considerations by philosophers like Martha Nussbaum. Indeed there is a Stoic Solutions Podcast, The Practical Stoic Podcast, and an Annual Stoic Week held online, with the nerdy, masculinist ethos particularly popular in Silicon Valley. In The Conversation, Matthew Sharpe describes this online community “numbering over 100,000 participants” as being “Stoicism 5.0.” And of course, the biggest seller in the category of “philosophical self-help,” though not Stoic in nature, is the controversial right-wing Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s grandiosely titled 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos.

Seemingly there is a genuine desire for not just answers but meaningful answers, which this somewhat gimmicky genre supplies. Of variable insight, I can’t speak to the efficacy of all of these titles, but I can attest to the intellectual honesty of Farnsworth’s volume and the helpfulness in his centering on the primary sources themselves. Peterson’s best-seller is basically a mixture of Jungian pablum and unconvincing sociobiology masquerading as science, whereas Farnsworth’s guide is rigorous, well-argued, and applicable. No doubt Peterson would (and does) dispute such characterizations of 12 Rules for Life, and yet the thread of Western chauvinism, misogyny, and nativist triumphalism peers out through his claims, the better to counter with a cosmopolitanism as exemplified by Epictetus’s credo that “When asked what country you are from, do not say ‘I am Athenian’ or ‘I am from Corinth.’ Say … ‘I am a citizen of the world.’” (A crucial position as nationalists polish their jackboots.)

One of Farnsworth’s strengths is that he’s resolutely nonpartisan, as opposed to the thinly veiled reactionary politics of a Peterson, and in the process, Farnsworth actually speaks far more to contemporary concerns by counterintuitively not particularizing our moment. Where Peterson offers a banal “Do not bother children when they are skateboarding,” Marcus Aurelius invokes the profound “everything you see changes in a moment and will soon be gone”; one hopes that 12 Rules for Life is one of those transient things. Farnsworth jokes that “Some would regard Marcus Aurelius as a notably poor motivational speaker. For the Stoic he is among the only kind tolerable,” but who needs Peterson with his lobster serotonin when you can have Marcus Aurelius?

Farnsworth is valuable because he isn’t transient, keeping with the seemingly universal character of the movement that he advocates, though he quips that despite “repeating … claims written 2,000 years ago,” the honest “Stoic would presumably say it’s still early.” Such is his good-natured humor, reflecting the humility of his philosophy. There is a stolid Victorianism in Farnsworth’s prose, the better to convey timelessness so that he’s convincing when he claims that the “most productive advice anyone offers nowadays, casually or in a bestseller, often amounts to a restatement or rediscovery of something the Stoics said with more economy, intelligence, and wit long ago.”

Farnsworth’s claim may be sweeping, but he convinces you, not by making those connections explicit but in letting you infer them. When Seneca writes, “there is not one [person] whose life is not focused on tomorrow. What harm is there in that, you ask? Infinite harm. They are not really living. They are about to live,” I note the concept of “mindfulness,” of “living in the present.” When the poet Horace, a Stoic fellow-traveler, observes that “they change their climate, not their disposition, who run beyond the sea,” I hear echoes of the warning in the recovery community against “pulling a geographic.” And when Seneca imagines the possibility of “looking down upon the earth from above” and saying to oneself, “Is this the pinpoint that is divided by sword and fires among so many nations?” I see prophetic intimations of the beautiful “Earthrise” photograph taken in 1968 during the Apollo 8 mission, Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot.”

Strangely, Stoicism’s most helpful sentiment is that cosmic sensibility. A crackerjack account of intellectual history emphasizes a tendency toward humility as humans realized their less privileged place in existence, from Copernicus to Darwin to modern cosmology, but the Stoics anticipated this by two millennia. Marcus Aurelius noted that “the whole of the sea is a drop in the universe … all the present time is one point in eternity”; while other emperors built themselves monuments, this particular emperor had the wisdom to understand that this, too, shall pass. Such comes the ethic that “Our ultimate insignificance makes the case for living well in the present, for no other purpose survives,” as Farnsworth explains.

Stoicism’s continuing relevance is its ability to help us cope with the ever-mounting anxieties of postmodernity, the daily thrum of Facebook and Twitter newsfeeds, the queasy push notifications and the indignities of being a cog in the shaky edifice of late capitalism (or whatever). Even more than that, Stoicism is attuned to the largest problems that our species faces, perched on the verge of extinction. Quoting Marcus Cato, Seneca wrote that “As for the cities that ever held sway over the world … someday people will ask where they were,” adding with almost eerie insight that perhaps “severity of climate will drive their people away, and neglect will destroy what they have abandoned.”

Mature insights offered by Stoicism during the humid days of the Anthropocene. Such may be the position of the literary scholar Roy Scranton, who in We’re Doomed. Now What?: Essays on War and Climate Change is an eloquent theorist of what it means to live on the precipice of ecological collapse. Hard not to hear Seneca’s voice as Scranton imagines “some unknown future, on some strange and novel shore, human beings just like us … sitting circled around a fire on the beach … one telling a story about a mighty civilization doomed by its hubris, an age of wonders long past.”

We need not distinguish between the planet’s mortality and our own, for as Seneca wrote, “We live in the midst of things destined to die.” What Stoicism offers is a way of life in the midst of death, a maturity toward what extinction means. Seneca claimed that “We go astray in thinking that death follows, when it has both preceded and will follow. Whatever conditions existed before our birth, was death.” I’d heard similar arguments before, but after reading that in Farnsworth, something about the reasoning struck me like a neophyte in a Zen parable who is suddenly enlightened.

What is death to fear when there was a time that we did not exist? When we were already dead? I’ve read of a tradition where a Roman general would triumphantly parade through the streets, with golden laurels and purple-trimmed robe, and as part of this precession, an enslaved person would whisper in the ear of the victor that “You too are mortal.” Stoicism is a philosophy of memento mori, of reminding us of that simple yet profound fact. What The Practicing Stoic argues—and convinces us of—is that this philosophy of mortality provides a measure of freedom to both the general and the person whispering in his ear.

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