The Humor of It All
Daniel Klein brings philosophy down to earth
Daniel Klein said he would never write another book. Nonetheless, he has just released his 30th, Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It.
Photo by Scott Barrow
The early light clings to his deeply etched face as Danny Klein sits at one end of his kitchen table, coffee and smokes very much a part of his morning ritual in his Great Barrington home of many years. His raspy voice casually heads into philosophical thoughts, a natural detour for this 76-year-old writer.
Klein’s latest book, Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It, is another example of how Klein has made philosophy accessible. “I do it in a way that people can understand it,” he says. This particular one is the result of a notebook that he started as a philosophy student at Harvard, quotes by the Great Thinkers and his own young observations. Klein rediscovered that notebook decades later, in his 70s, and thought, How naïve. He found himself writing his thoughts from the excerpts.
“I thought I was done writing,” says Klein, a statement fondly brushed aside by his wife of 40 years and those who know him well. “Julia”—his publicist—“said it was a book.”
Co-author of the New York Times bestseller Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar…: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, Klein is very much connected to existentialists and taking responsibility for your life. An agnostic, he’s “still on the fence and wondering,” he says. He considers himself a Hellenophile, saying the Greeks express unrestrained emotion and extreme generosity. His amorous view of the culture is reflected in Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life.
Klein offers a way to think about how you want to live, using tools of philosophy to get there. “We like to think of our life and works as having some sort of immortality,” says Klein. Yet, he adds, in two generations, most people are all but forgotten.
So what’s with his “legacy” of books? Chiefly, he wrote them to make a living. “I chose writing as a profession because I didn’t want to work for anyone else,” Klein says. In addition to authoring his own, he has ghostwritten others earlier in his career to pay the mortgage. He has written a book a year, 30 in all, and says he is among less than five percent of published writers who don’t have another job.
Born in Wilmington, Delaware, Klein tried living in New York City three times, but it never took. A person he was writing a TV movie with had a summer home in Southfield, and Klein rented a home nearby and stayed there for the season in 1970. That’s where he met Freke Vuijst, an American correspondent for the Dutch newsweekly, Vrij Nederland. Klein has since written plays for Shakespeare & Company and Berkshire Theatre Festival. “I write better up here,” he says. “There isn’t all those distractions. New York is full of print everywhere. That gets into my head. I don’t want to look at print. I want to look at the world.”
At age 66, he collaborated with his best friend from Harvard, Tom Cathcart, and they came up with the concept of finding humor with philosophy. Plato and a Platypus was rejected 40 times before being accepted. “We hit something we both really liked,” Klein says. “I can explain philosophy with books. I just know jokes. I can’t remember my first wife’s name, but I can remember every joke I’ve ever heard. If I weren’t funny, I’d put a bullet in my head.”
An Oyster's Life
“The life of man is of no greater importance
to the universe than that of an oyster.”
—David Hume, philosopher (1711–1776), British Empiricist
This is one of the first quotes I copied into my notebook as a young man. It spoke to me then and it speaks to me now. Indeed, the ultimate insignificance of my life in the context of the entire universe and time eternal becomes harder to ignore as I near its end. But these days I find a sweet consolation just beneath the surface of Hume’s assessment.
For starters, I need to check out a bit of ambiguity in Hume’s statement. Does he mean that all lives—from oyster to human—are of equal importance to the universe, yet they are all of great importance to it? That every little thing is absolutely wonderful in God’s handmade universe, like the “It’s all good” message of the Anglican hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”?
I’m afraid not. It would be unlike Hume, a skeptical philosopher, to be in such a warm and fuzzy frame of mind when he issued his oyster ordinance. Rather, I suspect he meant something along the lines of, “It is all so incredibly big out there and each one of us is so incredibly small, our lives so brief and time infinitely long, so maybe our individual lives are not the big deals we like to think they are. In fact, our lives are more like an oyster’s.”
—From Every Time I Find the Meaning of Life, They Change It , by Daniel Klein