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Finding peace in the sunset
A PRIVATE HISTORY OF HAPPINESS:
Ninety-Nine Moments of Joy from Around the World
By George Myerson
256 pp. BlueBridge
Reviewed by Karna Converse
Our happiest lived experiences have the power to help us face the real world with all its difficulties. --George Myerson
The word “history” may be in this book's title but don't look for a timeline marked with major historical events in its pages. That's public history or “big” dates, George Myerson writes in A Private History of Happiness. Instead, he focuses on private history, the “little” days that were important because of what a person felt. He introduces this idea in the book's introduction:
For many of us in the twenty-first century, happiness has become a riddle, a goal that remains strangely nebulous. Politics and economics, education and psychology all have happiness as their promise or end. But we need to grasp the happiness that is a strand of everyday life if we are to make good on any of these promises … Celebrity and consumption melt away at the merest hint of trouble, but real happiness carries us onward toward the next dawn.
Myerson gleaned specific moments of everyday life from the diaries and personal correspondence of 99 people and organized them by theme, with eight to twelve entries in each of the book's eleven chapters.
But this isn't your typical coffee-table book of one-sentence quotations printed in elegant calligraphy. Myerson puts the quoted text--one to four paragraphs--in context by including biographical information about the person who wrote it and describing the setting in which the moment occurred. These additional paragraphs emphasize how important the experience was to the individual and invite readers to reflect upon a similar moment in their own lives.
Writing about an 1880 diary entry of Walt Whitman's, for example, Myerson explains that the 61-year old, though widely respected as a poet, was short of money and in poor health. The big-city, East Coast resident found peace in the sunset, on the Canadian shores of the St. Clair River, where “On this evening, the opposites were reconciled: past and future, land and water, urban and rural life, youth and age.”
The author is an academic and was for many years Lecturer and Reader in English at King's College London. He's widely published in the areas of ancient and contemporary culture, modern thought, and the philosophy of everyday life. His background is important to note before opening A Private History of Happiness, and I wish I'd more fully understood it when I read the book jacket's promotional paragraphs.
I hadn't expected Myerson's 99 moments of joy to cover such a wide span of time periods. The majority of entries are from the 1700s and 1800s, but many date to ancient times. I was familiar with only a handful of the individuals Myerson selected, but readers more steeped in world history than I are sure to find his selections intriguing. Here are a few of the people he highlights:
Marcus Aurelius (Rome) Between 170 and 180 CE
Ptolemy (Egypt) Second Century CE
Seydi Ali Reis (Turkey)1556
Wang Wei (China) 759 CE
Anselm of Canterbury (France) 1078
Benjamin Franklin (United States) 1751
Bhaskara (India) 1150
Edmund Verney (England)1685
Lady Sarashina (Japan) 1050s
Ibn Battuta (Morocco) 1354
A Private History of Happiness is not a fast read even though each entry is under two pages in length - but that's a good thing. Taking time to savor the quoted text, and the person and circumstancesbehind the text emphasizes Myerson's premise that the memory of a single moment of ordinary happiness endures through time. Chances are good that readers will remember similar moments in their own lives. I know I did.