Willard Spiegelman, the Hughes Professor of English at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, is a man for whom Freud's promise to turn neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness could never have held much appeal. Falling in with the ancient classifications of the Four Temperaments, he describes himself as sanguine, which is to say cheerful and optimistic. As one who has known him most of our adult lives (though mostly at the remove of half a continent, by latitude and longitude), I can confirm that assessment. Wes Davis, who reviewed Willard's new book Seven Pleasures: Essays on Ordinary Happiness (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), called him jovial. But Jove—as in "by Jove"—is the corporate chairman of Olympus, the one with the flowing beard and the Dickensian ho-ho-ho. On the strength both of personal acquaintance and Seven Pleasures, I contend that the mot juste would be mercurial—Mercury being the gadabout who gets around and spreads the news.
Willard's pleasures are Reading, Walking, Looking, Dancing, Listening, Swimming, and Writing, each good for an essay of its own. (There is also an introduction, entitled "Being.") By the bye, the book is an oblique Bildungsroman: the memoirs of a writer charmingly unwilling to write one.
An alternate title might have been In Praise of Solitude. Apart from dancing, which in Willard's case is of the ballroom variety, the activities he cultivates are best cultivated alone, or so he contends. Given his profession, it should surprise no one that his frame of reference is often literary. Sweeping statements made in passing may not bear scrutiny. Apart from Marlowe's purple Hero and Leander, the professor would have us believe, swimming pretty much enters English literature with Byron, and then vanishes again. What about Beowulf? Shakespeare's Julius Caesar? Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet? Stevie Smith, not swimming but drowning? But as Willard's essay on reading suggests, reading is dialogue by other means. What's what, in the pedantic sense, is only a piece of the story. For Willard, the essence of reading—as of his other six subjects—is pleasure. Wordsworth, one of Willard's muses, has it that "we murder to dissect." Williard dissects very capably, yet murders nothing. His capacity for enjoyment is off the charts, and his pleasure is contagious. He is a born teacher by example. "One engages in [writing]," he says, "to please oneself, and if others want to overhear or to read it, so much the better. Playing an instrument makes you a better listener of good music; painting helps you to appreciate the Old Masters; and writing should lead you to be a better reader. That's the most you should count on."
An aside: I wonder if Willard's title Seven Pleasures reminds anyone else of the chef's recommendation at a Chinese restaurant. Curiously enough, the first foreign sale of the book has been to the Chinese market—not the mainland, but Taipei and other outlying territories. I think the happy sages of the ancient Middle Kingdom would recognize Willard as one of their own.