Rating: 4/5Today it seems like not many people proudly wear the philosopher hat. More often than not the ones exploring and thinking about ideas are scientists, journalists or — regrettably — unqualified laymen with an eye for a niche in the emotionally needy public. When not stroking their beards, pulling on pipes or meditating on the meaning of meaning most philosophers are content to simply confound us with things we may not have considered and probably shouldn’t. Not so of Alain de Botton. Here is a man who makes his living thinking about how we approach our lives. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he takes his finely tuned analytical and philosophical tools and applies them fully to the task of over-thinking the things that keep us up at night. Sex, for example.
In The School of Life series, guest authors are invited to pontificate about subjects as diverse but as practically important as work, sex, money, emotional maturity, digital life and the changing world. While de Botton doesn’t seem to have any particular background of note in sex therapy, relationships, anthropology or porn, he nevertheless has a lot to say about the subject of how we westerners relate to all of these things. The title, in fact, is a bit misleading — perhaps purposefully, maybe even cleverly so. A common reaction observed among those reading the title for the first time is a chortle and a rather banal comment along the lines of I think I probably do enough of that as it is. While it would seem to imply that this was a book about how to spend more time thinking about sex, it’s actually a book about how to pay it more quality of mind, treat it with respect, embrace it, or just think differently about it. He lays bare the idea that we are sexual beings and asks us to set the baggage of our morality down and turn around to examine it all before picking it back up again. The book is confident and directly written — refreshingly free of pandering. From time to time it judges, but not without an amusing or well-reasoned justification. It’s rich with small realities articulated in the most beautiful sentiments like the following:
“Nothing is erotic that isn’t also, with the wrong person, revolting, which is precisely what makes erotic moments so intense: at the precise juncture where disgust could be at its height, we find only welcome and permission.”
At the same time as ideas like this are insightful into the sort of base human psychology we rarely think about. They’re also sometimes uncomfortable. But as often as those sorts of ideas come up they are tempered by de Botton’s dry sense of humor. This quality is not unique to this book and more than anything else is a signature of his writing style. In everything he’s ever written he walks a very ambiguous line between sincerity and humor as exemplified in the following statement when talking about the duration of the act of sex:
“Even at its extreme, we are talking of an activity that might only rarely occupy two hours, or approximately the length of a Catholic Mass.”
Much of the book is made up of de Botton’s fantasy vignettes designed to illustrate a situation in a way that’s entertaining. Rather than explain to you in his own terms how a hypothetical situation might present itself, he writes in dialog between two people he made up along the way. Often the antics of these characters are laugh-out-loud funny and other times the themes of their interactions are simply and universally relatable:
“He reaches around her back and grapples awkwardly with the hooks on her bra. With a forgiving smile at his ineptitude, she reaches around to help him.“
And when you think it’s all romp and light-heartedness he lays down a heavy truth as in this passage where he’s speaking about the sometimes perceived contradiction in the needs of sex and love:
“…as a society, we have to find ways to make sure that these two needs can be freely claimed, without fear or blame or moral condemnation. We have to mitigate the taboos surrounding both appetites, so as to minimize the necessity of dissimulation and thereby the heartbreak and guilt it causes.”
It is entirely conceivable that by the time a reader finishes How to Think More About Sex they could put it down without really understanding whether or not they should have taken any of it seriously. But it’s precisely that nature that makes it accessible and tolerable rather than preachy. It’s more suggestion than imperative and it’s entertaining either way. The book is beautifully written. De Botton’s command of the Queen’s English allows him to wield a sort of stealth wit which seems to reveal itself only in reflection. While he makes no outward or direct jokes there are clearly things throughout this book that we’re meant to laugh at. The construction of every paragraph seems to end in either revelation or punch line.
This is a book whose audience is already open-minded enough to want to engage in a light hearted and self-deprecating exploration of how we think about sex and all of the ways that it drives us, perverts us, inspires us and causes us great pain. True to the School of Life mandate, it also gives us plenty of food for thought while being concise and digestible in length. And even if you come away having changed your mind about nothing, at least you’ll have been entertained and challenged along the way — the mark of a great book.