“We read books at certain times in our lives and they have an impact on us depending on how open we are to what they are saying.”
—Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt by Kathleen B. Jones
The magic of reading is that it can be a gateway into another person’s life and thoughts in a way that gives us insight about our own life. In Diving for Pearls, Kathleen B. Jones gains deeper understanding of her own life through years of reading, studying and researching Hannah Arendt. Jones masterfully explores the complexities of Arendt’s life, but where her book really shines is in the telling of her own story as well as the wisdom she gained from her own experiences by reading Arendt’s work.
This book is not a linear chronology of Arendt’s life. This is the type of story Jones describes as, “much more than a simple description of a series of events or occurrences; the whole point is to uncover layers of meaning in the life lived” (7). In the interest of full disclosure, Jones was my thesis advisor when I earned my MA in Women’s Studies from San Diego State University in 2003. My thesis explored the ways women write their lives in memoir, and I took up this idea of uncovering layers of meaning in one’s life, so I had a particular interest in how Jones did this with Arendt’s life even though I knew only a little bit about Arendt prior to reading Diving for Pearls.
This is a different kind of biography. It’s one in which the biographer is strongly present. Jones does not hide behind her subject in the way some biographers do when they leave only tiny bread crumbs of clues as to their existence as biographer. Her story is just as central to the book as Arendt’s is. I like the honesty with which Jones explores how her subject came to affect her. By approaching the book this way, she is invited the reader to have their own journey through Arendt’s life and their own life. I also appreciate that her relationship with Arendt is not merely one of idolization. Jones does not always agree with Arendt, and she puzzles some of her most controversial ideas such as those expressed in Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem.
Jones looks critically at Arendt’s relationship with Martin Heidegger–a relationship that started when she was a student of Heidegger’s at the University of Marburg. Heidegger became a controversial figure when he supported the Nazi Party, and Arendt maintained contact with him later in her life despite this. Jones uses her discussion of Arendt’s relationship with Heidegger to explore the Heideggers in her own life. In doing so, Jones puts her own story in conversation with Arendt’s.
Jones writes, “…because what a life’s story means depends on others’ responding to it, story-telling needs a public world, a world filled with others who make my own story matter maybe even more than it matters to me. Without all those others, any life story would remain meaningless” (391). Our stories are shaped by the meaning derived by those who listen and read. In Diving for Pearls, Arendt’s story is shaped by Jones’s telling of it. In addition, Jones’s story is shaped by her reading and studying of Arendt, and each page brings reflection and changes and shapes that story.
At the beginning of the last chapter, Jones tells of a friend who asked her why she found Arendt so compelling. Jones writes, “Because of her hesitations, her inconsistencies and reversals, I said. Earlier in my life, I wanted everything to fit. Now, I crave ambiguity. Give me the rough edges, the bags under the eyes and the wrinkles of truth” (367). In a time where there are plenty of examples of public figures’ failings being paraded before us so that we can mock and belittle them, it is refreshing to see someone take up a life in a way that lays bare the wrinkles and rough edges as a way to gain meaning rather than for the purpose of public shaming. Jones never asks her reader to condemn Arendt for some of her more controversial ideas and choices. Instead, she writes about those things to get us to think about Arendt’s story as well as our own.
Jones’s choice to include her own story worked really well for me. As I mentioned, my knowledge on Arendt prior to reading this book was limited. The masterful blend of Jones’s story and Arendt’s story provide easy access to the complex ideas Arendt discusses about the nature of evil, power, history and more. The style of this book helped me to put my own life in conversation with both women in a way no other medium can.
Contemplating her research, Jones writes, “And because, before and behind me, across thousands of miles and eons of time, someone collected souvenirs of her origins and exile, I can touch, in those layers of life’s comings and goings, ages of beginnings and endings so that, in whatever time I have left on this earth, I might tell a story, a tale that could survive this ever-changing movement of life” (193-194). Perhaps this is the biggest takeaway from Diving for Pearls: in others’ stories, we find our own. Each word is a souvenir of the places visited and the choices made, and in putting those words on paper we leave evidence for some reader/explorer in the future trying to piece their own life together and begin the cycle again.
You can purchase Diving for Pearls from Powell’s, or visit your favorite local bookstore.
Jones, Kathleen B. Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt. San Diego: Thinking Women Books, 2013. Print.