How to live? Be born

is the name of the third chapter in the Bakewell book, and it is a good way to sneak in some interesting and basic biographical information about Montaigne. But for my group reading about his circumstances exaggerated the differences that made writing so attractive, and, well, positive, for him. As we’d discussed last time I was in Montaigne’s heightened attention to detail struck them as a clarifying luxury; their heightened attention to everything is born of life and death necessity, and they think it highlights almost entirely abnormal things about their lives in prison, which they regret they predict they’ll never be able to shed. One man asked me last night how getting a jumpy dog had affected my attention to detail. Oh boy, a good question — my walk to work or around the neighb had never been the same since this hyper vigilant — to other dogs, chipmunks, loud trucks — came into my life, and definitely not in a good way. That’s not to say that we can’t learn interesting things about ourselves and world. But it’s at least as much through a distorting lens as a clarifying one.

Excellent news here for the segue: the NY State college credit program has finally made it to this prison, and two of the men in my group of five last night have been admitted, and two are on the waitlist. 23 admitted out of more than 50 applicants. They are thrilled and excited, and I believe them when they say they never would have applied if not for having done work in our book groups. No confidence in their academic abilities before; quite a lot now: the main reason (whether connected to formal college credit in prison or not) I do this work. And the feeling of happiness was palpable in the room last night.

In spite of the fact that we turned the attention from Be Born to To Decide to Die. Suicide has been in the local news, and we took up the question of whether we can ever know why other people do drastic things (jeez, LV). They argued, interestingly, that there are many instances when the agent is not the best judge of what is going on in his life or even mind and a third party might actually know more than the person him or her self (self deception confusion, salience, and more), but they thought that when it came to suicide the person making the decision *probably* does have a good sense of the reason and cause (we did a sidebar to discuss this distinction), at least a better one than other people. We also discussed whether it is ever rational to kill oneself — actually the right thing to do (and not just in cases of, say, heroic self sacrifice for others) — no agreement at all on this question (and strong conviction on both sides of the spectrum). A good, lively discussion, and for all the bleakness of the topic, quite fun.

I was very happy to be there, and I know they too were happy I made it in this time.


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