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Cigarettes are Sublime by Richard Klein

Welcome to the latest entry in the Sui Generis book club series. I'm just going to go ahead and title these posts with the name of the book from now on, if that's okay with everyone.

Until now, I've only commented on my fiction reading, but this book deserved some further reflection. Cigarettes are Sublime was brought to my attention by this post on Conversational Reading. It was written for and by an insider, a smoker, and the author intimates early on that a non-smoker will be essentially unable to understand it. But that is how I approached the book: as an outsider, trying to get inside the mind of a cigarette smoker. The experiment was almost too successful. At several points during my reading, I wanted to close the book, drive down to the gas station and buy a pack of cigarettes.

I've had a love/hate relationship with smoking for several years. In elementary school, my best friend's parents were both smokers. I spent a lot of time at his house, which was permeated with the smell. It often gave me headaches. Fast-forward to college, when I started making positive associations with cigarette smoke. I sat in clouds of the stuff and listened to great music and my eyes watered when I got in my car to go home, but the smell hung on my jacket for a couple of days and I could sniff it and be right back in the venue.

The two go hand-in-hand, of course. Good time at a show = cigarette smoke. I was at a show in a new club in Minneapolis when something was bothering me. An essential element was missing, but I couldn't put my finger on it. Then it came to me--the cigarette smoke!--it was a non-smoking building. The place didn't feel right without it.

I still never tried a cigarette myself, or even one of those cloves my friends are so wild about, because I know it's bad for me. They know it's bad for them too, but they do it anyway. That's the sublime nature that I was trying to understand, and this book not only opened my eyes but changed my whole way of thinking about it, to a degree that I rarely encounter. When I do, I know that I've found a remarkable book.

Klein says that the process of writing this book enabled him to kick his own cigarette habit. By analytically picking apart the phenomenon of smoking and exploring their sublimely addictive nature, he apparently attained the dispassionate outlook required to give them up. But his evocative, obviously very personal musings on the joys of smoking and the beauty and history of cigarettes were enough to make me, a lifetime non-smoker, nostalgic for an experience that I'd never had. I craved for the first time something that I had always scrupulously avoided in the past. Cigarettes are sublime, indeed.

Categories: books

6 comments:

stag said...

This sounds interesting, but would you recommend it to someone who wants to quit smoking? It made you want to go buy cigarettes? Does the author eventually quit smoking, or does he live happily ever after with his cigarettes (in which case, I probably shouldn't read it)?

sui generis said...

Not just the author, but others have claimed that this book helped them to quit, although that is not its stated purpose. Never having smoked myself, I'm unqualified to make a recommendation one way or the other, but I'd say you've got nothing to lose.

stag said...

Cool. I'm going to write it down. Maybe I'll try to find a copy to read on my upcoming trip.

Scott said...

SG,

Although I have never been a smoker, the book also made me want to grab a pack. I think Klein does a good job of conveying that essence of smoking--not the tar, or the smoke, or the feel of the paper, but that thing about it that makes it so desirable.

I also think his counterintuitive approach to kicking the habit--that extolling cigarettees is a better way to quit than demonizing them--shows much intelligence.

Lastly, I'll just say that this book is a great example of literary non-fiction. His prose sings.

sui generis said...

Very true, Scott. Thanks a bundle for turning me on to that book in the first place.

meresophistry said...

I agree with Scott. The whole key to the book is in honoring the things you decide to leave behind rather than disavowing your own connection to them. Its like being in a relationship. Which is better: breaking up by rejecting everything you've enjoyed with someone or doing so by honoring the things you've shared. Obviously, cigarettes aren't persons, but many people enjoy smoking for a host of reasons that aren't reducible to addiction. The book didn't make me quit smoking, but when I do decide to part ways with my habit, it would be on similiar terms.