Recently reading Harper’s, I came across an advertisement for a mail-order audio course entitled Life Lessons of the Great Books. Over 36 lectures, it promises to teach “how great books...provide you with insights on how to conduct yourself in times of trouble, how to handle the joys and frustrations of love, how to appreciate the simple moments in life, and so much more.”
Great idea, I thought! In fact, I’ve decided to start my own line of courses, mining the works of all forms of literature for lessons that can be directly applied to solve everyday problems. Some excerpts:
Home-Decorating Ideas from the Great Plays. Take a tip from Konstantin in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and convert your living room into a space-saving dual-purpose parlor and workspace suitable for both entertaining and alone-time with computer or quill. Keep it homey with a bingo board to occupy your guests when you’re in the mood to retreat to the next room and shoot yourself.
In choosing accent pieces, opt for bright colors and transcend the dreary blandness of Mary and Tyron’s summer house in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” Shop smart and avoid the look of lifeless rot that made Tyrone feel detached from his surroundings and indifferent to his wife’s morphine addiction. If despair persists, avoid mirrors. Or use them with flourish and splash your walls with reflective glass reminiscent of the brothel in Jean Genet’s “The Balcony.” Let your lifestyle echo in endless, relentless reminders of the lurid horror that is existence, and invite friends!
Quick and Simple Recipes from Chaucer. What reader has ever finished Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales without envying the pioneers’ menu of marrow pyes and squyrele? Indeed, what reader has ever finished Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales? With verse as zesty as millet itself, this classic narrative of medieval living and fine dining provides a wealth of serving ideas for every modern-day admirer of St. Thomas Becket. Reach for the fridge and pull out some crane, sprinkle a dash of catewale, and you’ll have a mortreaux in minutes! Carve the lyvere of a deer, garnish with fecches and a drizzle of ellebor, pop it the microwave, and call the kids for blancmange time!
Tighter Buns through the Quantangshi. Few works in world literary history have provided lessons in buttock sculpting more sublime than those of the imperial poets of the Tang Dynasty. One thinks at once of Du Fu, who wrote, “The ancient dukedoms are everywhere green, inspired and stirred by the breath of creation, with the twin forces balancing day and night.” As with the dual phenomena that divide our experience of each rotation of the planet, twin forces of gluteal muscles divide our buns. The great question for us all is, what can we do to make them hard and round as green peaches? There is wisdom in the words of Li Bai, who suggested the technique of lying on the back and elevating the torso, when he told of how “the bright moon lifts from the Mountain of Heaven.”
Diet Secrets of Lyric Poetry. A vision lovelier than horsemen or a fleet of ships, wrote Sappho, is the vision of “what you love.” What, though, of one’s love for fried bananas? That could well be a love lovelier than its beholder, and that means you if you end up comparable to a fleet of ships primarily in size. Curb your intake of fat, sugars and carbohydrates, unless you burn them better than John Donne. “I have earned bread in the sweat of my browe, in the labor of my calling, and I have it,” wrote Donne. “But I eat no bread.” Of the 16th-century metaphysical poets, Donne knew how to count his carbs.
Perhaps it was Sir Thomas Wyatt, the father of the sonnet, who embodied the best practice of intake restriction with his decree that “Sighs are my food.” For drink, Wyatt explained, he had tears—a resourceful dieter’s solution to the problem of staying hydrated, a challenge that has endured through literary history. As early as the time of Augustus, Horace provided watchwords of use to weight-watchers through the ages: “Now is the time for drinking.”
Better Sex through Metafiction. In bed, as in postmodern fiction, there’s something special in the satisfaction to be found in caring deeply, wholly, solely, for the self. Study the Kama Sutra of John Barth, wherein you are the text, and the text is all. Sex, you’ll find, need not have any more to do with love than language has to do with life. Text is text, and sex is sex, and metatext is metasex!
Learn to perform not just one act of eros but many little ones at once—some gestural, some historical, some just really weird. Tie in things you like to do with other lovers, and do them with all of them at the same time. When making love, keep Milan Kundera in mind, and think of your private parts as characters, employing their adolescent pet names, and ensure that they are aware at all times that they are having sex. Above all: footnote, ideally with your actual feet.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic and a professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.