Freedom, Being, and Apricot cocktails

Why do you choose to read what you read? There's the book that you've got to read in order to sit an exam (though Existentialists would argue that even there where there appears to be no choice, there is a choice of sorts - you could after all choose NOT to read it, and choose failure), there's the moment when you listen to a tune, and suddenly have the overwhelming desire to read Charlotte Bronte's complete works, or yearn for Dashiell Hammett after watching one of the Thin Man films.

And then there are the books that you come across accidentally in bookshops or libraries. Covers can be all important here, whether it's a quick glimpse of the name of an author you like, a title that you remember hearing good things about, or a stunning cover that just makes you pick that particular book up. This happened to me when I was bookshop browsing and found Sarah Bakewell's At the Existentialist cafe : freedom, being, and apricot cocktails.

Once the cover and title (another big hook) had drawn me in; the final thing that persuaded me to give the book a go was a great tag-line from a review: "It's not often that you miss your bus stop because you're so engrossed in a book about existentialism, but I did exactly that while engrossed in....At the Existentialist cafe..."

I read quite a lot about existentialism when I was at university many moons ago, music was my main subject, but I read philosophy in my first year, and thoroughly enjoyed the sheer mind-bendingness of it. I had forgotten till I read At the Existentialist cafe, quite how much I enjoyed it. It's probably appropriate that I should have felt like this, as part of the book is about Bakewell's own looking back to her youth and her philosophy studies, it's part biography of the people involved in existentialism, their interactions with each other and the wider world, and it's part just pure philosophy.

Boris Vian - trumpeter and existentialist
It's a completely enchanting read from Raymond Aron's throw-away comment to Jean-Paul Sartre "....if you are a phenomenologist, you can talk about this cocktail and make philosophy out of it" to the glorious zaniness and freedom of existentialism itself. The lives of these philosophers and their fellow existentialists living through one of the greatest periods of change in human history, the turbulent twentieth century, make for fascinating reading: Heidegger, incredible but seriously flawed genius, who embraced National Socialism, Simone de Beauvoir, who I admired immensely in this book, who wrote one of the most influential books on women and society - The Second Sex (which is now on my must-read list), the light-hearted, but lesser known Merleau-Ponty, whose influence would be much more far-reaching than could have been realised at the time, charismatic Jean-Paul Sartre, jazz-loving Boris Vian, and novelist, Albert Camus, who while resolutely denying that he was an existentialist was very much a part of their inner circle. They danced, they resisted the Nazis, they drank apricot cocktails, and they mused on life and art.

When I was studying philosophy as a youth, I don't think I ever really appreciated the sheer joy of existentialism - perhaps I was filled with too much existentialist angst - but Bakewell's book is full of the happiness of being alive, of being able to think about our own existence, and to have the freedom of choice within the existence we have. It's a profoundly optimistic read; and I loved every moment of it - crazy characters, philosophy and all.

If you're a lover of philosophy, twentieth century history and culture, or even if you just want to read a life-affirming story, spend some time At the Existentialist cafe. (If you're feeling thirsty, there's a recipe for apricot cocktails here).


Sounds good!I thought the title sounded rather twee, but your description is much more tempting.

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