By Richard Todd
272 pages; Riverhead
That exquisitely pricey antique you just bought? It's fake. That fragrantly authentic restaurant in rural Umbria? It's a tourist trap. Richard Todd's arch and eloquent meditation, The Thing Itself: On the Search for Authenticity (Riverhead), probes our obsession (and his own) with telling the false from the true—in the world around us and in our own duplicitous minds. But how to do that? By embracing what we call the simple life, purging our hearts and homes of whatever is superfluous, flimsy, or false? Or by becoming "better materialists," putting a greater value on our tangible world? Perhaps; but we'll still be haunted by our many deceptions—"the false laugh, the swallowed opinion, the sycophant's praise"—and the worst of it is, these are self-deceptions too. Ranging from philosophy to literature to politics, Todd ruefully bares the "little sentimental subversions" that make us congratulate ourselves for feeling someone else's pain (eyes misting over at a news clip of a remote disaster). He unmasks the hypocrisy that makes politicians insist on being just plain folks. And in a valiant attempt at self-exoneration, he confesses to the addictive thrill, the "dark pleasure" of living a lie. In the end, he muses, the goal may not be "to be yourself, but to see yourself as you are in the present, unredeemed by acts past or future"—and to relish those fleeting moments with people you love when "you feel not unpleasantly that you are no more or less real than the candlelight." That who you really are is the person you see in their eyes.