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(Coffee) Shop Talk

Welcome to the shop where I talk about things that go well with coffee, which is almost everything.

coincidence bunny kitty

A couple of weeks ago I was walking through the East Village and passed a pile of books on the sidewalk. This is not unusual in New York; I pass piles of books on the sidewalk in all sorts of neighborhoods at least once a month or so. Normally I look them over quickly and keep moving because, well, they’ve usually been put on the curb for a reason. Out of date encyclopedia sets, old magazines, uninteresting-looking novels, and rushed biographies of people who had their five minutes of fame sometime last year.

This time, however, I noticed a novel I’d been meaning to read for quite awhile. It was The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. It’s essentially about the love lives of two intersecting couples in communist Prague whose lives take them on courses that, for various reasons, seem to them less and less consequential.

It starts out with some Niechtze-inspired nonsense about how things that only happen once don’t really matter and how, of all life’s dualities, the duality of lightness and weight is the hardest to assign good/bad or bad/good value to. I completely disagree with both of these points and nearly threw it away, but once the narrative starts the book gets much better.

One of the big themes in the book is how many important things in our lives are determined either by chance or by things deep within us that we don’t seem to have any control over. For example, the character Thomas meets his wife through an extremely chance encounter in a cafe hundreds of miles from where he lives. Later, he gives up his career as a doctor ostensibly to avoid the attention of the Russian secret police. Beyond that reason, though, seems to lie a cessation in whatever deep urge led him to medicine in the first place.

There are some interesting literary elements in the book as well, such as the strong intrusion of the narrator to comment on the characters as people and, sometimes, as admittedly fictional characters. Sometimes it’s like reading any other book, but other times it’s as if you were sitting with the author as he tells you about this idea he’s had for a book.

Beyond that, though, I like the book because it strikes a chord with me. I don’t feel that my life is disconnected and meaningless (as some of the book’s characters seem to feel), but I am at a sort of major crossroads as far as future plans are concerned, and when I look back on my life I feel that conscious, well-thought-out decisions play an extremely small role in the course of it. I think that’s more of a personality thing than a general statement on human nature and the meaning of life, but then again, I’ve known a lot of people who couldn’t seem to grasp just how much of their lives were formed by sheer chance and personality.

For those instances when we do make conscious decisions, set goals, and go after them with a will, I found this quote extremely apt:

The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is. The thing that gives our every move its meaning is always totally unknown to us.

In a sense I think that’s true. By definition, a goal is something you haven’t reached yet, and if you haven’t reached it, how can you really know what it is?

So, as I consider where to ply my English-teaching trade, perhaps I should just stop all this “decision making process” posturing and throw a dart at a map.

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