When We Read for Other People: Me and The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton, and Then Some:

The house gives signs of enjoying the emptiness. It is rearranging itself after the night, clearing its pipes and cracking its joints. This dignified and seasoned creature, with its coppery veins and wooden feet nestled in a bed of clay, has endured much: balls bounced against its garden flanks, doors slammed in rage, headstands attempted along its corridors, the weight and sighs of electrical equipment and the probings of inexperienced plumbers into its innards. A family of four shelters in it, joined by a colony of ants around the foundations and, in spring time, by broods of robins in the chimney stack. It also lends a shoulder to a frail (or just indolent) sweet-pea which leans against the garden wall, indulging the peripatetic courtship of a circle of bees.

The house has grown into a knowledgeable witness. It has been party to early seductions, it has watched homework being written, it has observed swaddled babies freshly arrived from hospital, it has been surprised in the middle of the night by whispered conferences in the kitchen. It has experienced winter evenings when its windows were as cold as bags of frozen peas and midsummer dusks when its brick walls held the warmth of newly baked bread.

Our third anniversary’s coming up, P. and mine, and I scrambled to get him a bunch of things that he better be happy about or else. Ahem. One of them, The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton. I figured he’d like it — he likes philosophy, he likes pictures, he likes aesthetics. See, P. is an artist, and you might have seen some of his works around this blog. But he’s also an architect, even though he’s not architect-ing away as he paints full-time now. His architect’s license is a very peculiar thing to me. It’s him, but not quite him.

I remember that around the time we first, well, got together, I made a conscious effort to brush up on my Arts education. I know a little bit of this and that, but I needed to study. I needed to learn how to cock my head just so when de Kooning would come up, or be able to comment on Jackson Pollock’s realism before he went all splotchy, or be able to say why I don’t like Gauguin much but Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele can give my soul the shivers every  damn time.

So I read. I spent many an afternoon those early days poring over as many of P.’s art books as I could, bought the occasional biography, and just looked at a lot of art. It’s contrived, yes, very much so. The old Oh, the things we do for love, won’t really fly here, I know. But, still: Love makes us reckless; awareness, pretensions — they’re part of that. And though it may not have been pure-intentioned at the beginning, I grew to love what I was reading. I stopped reading them if only for conversation, if only to say Yes, I am interested in what interests you.

I know the unspoken dictum, that point of pride: I read for myself, I read because it makes me happy. Self-pleasure, really. But I’ve found another dimension for this noble selfishness — we do read for other people, and we do it because we need to. And I’m not talking about assignments or blog tours. I’m not even talking about seeing something on another person’s blog that interests you.

Although it may start this way, it’s not about being liked. Or even being able to hold conversation. Perhaps, it’s quite basic: We genuinely want to make friends. And so we make an effort. We want to know the other. We want to have something with this person, and we look for what makes his soul tick is. And always, it seems, always we hope whatever that is makes our soul tick too.

A perplexing consequence of fixing our eyes on an ideal is that it may make us sad. The more beautiful something is, the sadder we risk feeling . . . Our sadness won’t be of the searing kind but more like a blend of joy and melancholy: joy at the perfection we see before us, melancholy at an awareness of how seldom we are sufficiently blessed to encounter anything of its kind. The flawless object throws into perspective the mediocrity that surrounds it. We are reminded of the way we would wish things always to be and of how incomplete our lives remain.

So, before wrapping it and hiding it away, I read The Architecture of Happiness. It’s a mix of history, philosophy, and yes, architecture and aesthetics. The history of the aesthetics of structure. The philosophy behind the ever-changing history of architecture. It was a wonderful read — an illuminating overview of how the places we exist in affects our psychology, and vice versa. The language is, as I’d expected, clear and fluid; never wooden, never pedantic. This is prose:

It is in dialogue with pain that many beautiful things acquire their value. Acquaintance with grief turns out to be one of the more unusual prerequisites of architectural appreciation. We might, quite aside from all other requirements, need to be a little sad before buildings can properly touch us.

I admit that I would never have picked this up if I did not love an architect. I know I would have read, instead, the author’s On Love, or his more directly-philosophical books about Proust, for example. I’ve always wanted to read those, the former especially, but The Architecture of Happiness was low on my want-to-read. But here I am. And I loved this. I loved this distinct from the way I love it — by default — because it’s a passion of my boyfriend’s. I love it, I do. It made my heart a-quiver.

I’ve read for other people too. My mother loves A.S. Byatt, and I girded my loins to read Possession. My friend Carina loves John Green, and so I read Looking for Alaska. When asked what his most favorite book is, P. answers, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Poet-friends have infested my once-so-prosaic life, and so I read poetry — willingly this time, not scorning the academe-processes I’d latched on to the genre. I’ve bought books because people I love swear the heavens would unfasten every time they read them. Sometimes the heavens would unfasten for me. Sometimes they don’t.

There are many reasons we read, I know that. I’ve found few people have owned up to reading for other people. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this. I think it’s a matter of being open to have one’s soul or mind struck by what has already struck another person. I think it’s a matter of being able to learn how to love something beyond another person’s love for it. No matter how contrived — even devious — our initial intentions may be.

My name is Sasha Martinez, and I read for other people.

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18 comments

  1. [...] 2010 Reads ← When we read for other people: Me and The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton, and then&nbs… [...]

  2. I loved this post! In a way, I think reading for other people is one of the greatest compliments we can pay. I love when Tony reads a book I’ve loved so that we can talk about it and share, but I also read things that he suggests that I might otherwise never have considered. And of course I’m also always looking for books that I think he might love.

    You should totally read On Love, though. I read it a few months ago, and despite thinking I would hate it, I thought it was pretty brilliant.

    1. Thanks, Steph. It’s a constant attitude, I guess, keeping our eyes peeled. And what really makes me feel, well, feel good about the whole thing is the sneakiness of it, haha. It’s like your doing your homework on someone, and they really don’t have to know about it. :]

      I actually learned of de Botton because of On Love. Sadly, I am yet to find a copy of that book here.

  3. I don’t know anything about this particular book, and the title pushes me off completely: no one can write an architecture of happiness for anyone else. Happiness is idiosyncratic and its characteristics and requirements and parameters are defined by EACH individual for himself.

    1. Piper · · Reply

      OK granted that the title makes up a lot of first impressions. However I think that the post-though only using de Botton’s work as an example-was able to explain what the book was about.

      It’s a mix of history, philosophy, and yes, architecture and aesthetics. The history of the aesthetics of structure. The philosophy behind the ever-changing history of architecture.

      It’s about architecture, not happiness per se. I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with you about your views on happiness. I am not attacking you. But-the post explains what “The Architecture of Happiness” meant even if it wasn’t the actual topic of the piece.

      1. Thanks, Piper. I’ve said what I felt too, in a comment. I didn’t do a review per se, but I made sure to give the details of de Botton’s work. So, thank you.

    2. It’s actually less about happiness, than architecture. It’s about architecture. It’s not exactly about what makes happiness, but how architecture affects our moods, our psychology, and not just our happiness. I wish you’d have read the post. I provided the gist of the book, even though it wasn’t the central focus. Your comment would be valid, if it was relevant. And it would’ve been relevant if you’d taken the time beyond reading simply the title of a previously unknown-to-you book.

  4. What I loved, apart from the lovely snippets you chose from Alain’s book is the wee throwaway phrase about how you read it before you gave it to your man…. lol

    For some reason that just tickles me. I have never thought to read a book I’ve bought for someone else and yet now I see a whole new world opening up for me! Thank you!

    1. Hi, Flora. Is that cheating? Haha. I couldn’t help it, and I really wanted to read it, be able to talk to him about it afterwards. I do this too often, haha, read a book before I give it to someone. Maybe just to make sure it’s good, or maybe just to read one extra book, haha. And thanks for dropping by. :)

  5. My boyfriend is a Civil Engineer and I have definitely picked up things because they were of interest to him. But I’ve found that sometimes you lean a lot by doing these that interest other people. Through my boyfriend I have become extremely passionate about the environment and city planning. What you might ask? You’re an English major who is obsessed with city planning? Yes… yes I am.

    1. You’re the first English major I’ve “met” who’s obsessed with city planning, haha. I love art more now that I’ve read up on it, and love it on my own. I know more than I ever thought I could know about architecture. We find that we love the things the people we love love [still with me? ;p] and as I’ve said above, that’s the one of the best parts, I should think.

  6. Piper · · Reply

    Happy anniversary! :-) I love this piece. I realize I have done this, not just read something cause it was recommended, but read it because a friend loved it. Well basically everything you just said, LOL. The whole “learning to love it on your own” I think that’s important. It raises the “contrivedness” to another level, no? It’s always a discovery.

    I like de Botton’s language based on your excerpts. Just for the curious, how architectural is it? :-)

    Thx for sharing not only your experience with the book but this entire topic!

    1. Thank you. :) Yes, it’s different from direct recommendations. There’s something sneaky about it too, haha.

      It’s, uh, very architectural, haha. No, I mean, I figured it would all be reflections on how, say, a wall affects human interactions — but it’s actually a primer on the history of architecture, how cultural attitudes affect architectural and design standards. :) So, yes, it’s more architecture than anything else — very insightful, illuminating, and not-at-all unaccessible literature on architecture. :) Hope I helped.

  7. [...] The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton. [...]

  8. [...] a different kind of book-love: “When We Read for Other People: Me & The Architecture of Happiness by Alain de Botton, and Then [...]

  9. [...] The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton [...]

  10. [...] was bought (PhP 499) from the Cubao branch of NBS about a year-ish ago. It looks purdy among my growing collection of de Botton [...]

  11. [...] with P., and actively searching for the books (because how else can I do this) to help me do so. “I am interested in this because this interests you” signals how contrived this kind of reading is, but over time my own curiosity grew, and I came [...]

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