How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky is another book I saw on NPR’s Best Books of 2016 list. What makes me sad about this list is that it’s almost 2018, and there are still so many books that I want to read. I guess it’s inevitable when the list has over three hundred books of all different genres that I won’t get to them all. Then there are the recommendations from Cannonball and other friends, random books I see at the bookstore, series I want to finish, and authors I like to read. There are just thousands of books out there I’m never going to get a chance to read.
Anyway, back to the review. How to Be a Person in the World is an advice column put together in book format. Heather Havrilesky is the author of the advice column Ask Polly from New York magazine. I was not familiar with the Ask Polly column, but I generally find advice columns and podcasts interesting. At best, I get insight into my own life and situations; at worst, it’s like a documentary, a little peek into other people’s lives and their problems.
Havrilevsky is empathetic and straight forward and I enjoyed reading her book. What I first noticed while reading were the questions chosen for this book. The writing ability of the questioners was impressive. They’d go on for paragraphs, eloquently discussing their practical and existential dilemmas with description and insight.
“Rationally, I know the answer is to take initiative. But my temperament lends itself to forming friendships like the way water might slowly bubble up from a dry creek bed. Over time and with little fanfare, my connection to a person grows until we are bonded in that mysterious way people bond.” (179)
“Everything else–my career, where I lived, the college I went to–was decided based on some combination of convenience and ‘the next logical step’. I’ve sort of floated through my life following these men down their paths, while every once in a while feeling worthless enough to make blind, halfhearted attempts at finding my own.” (156)
Havrilevsky would continue this trend with wordy answers that delve into her life and experiences. One question and answer that stuck with me was by a man basically asking for permission to have an affair. He said his wife had no interest in him sexually anymore and he needed to find pleasure outside of his marriage (I think I’m remembering this correctly). I’ve listened to a lot of Dan Savage’s podcasts, and I was afraid I was going to get more of the same–that maybe in order to save a marriage, cheating is the right option. But Havrilevsky dove right in and basically called him a selfish asshole. He’s going out every night, leaving his wife alone with their kids. He ignores her requests to help out more. No wonder she doesn’t want to sleep with him. This was probably my favorite response, and I think Havrilevsky was right in that situation.
My other experience reading this type of book was Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed, and it’s probably not a fair comparison. Although I liked Havrilevsky, sometimes I felt her answers went on so long that I lost the point of her advice. I also appreciated her answers, but they could occasionally be less than helpful. When a woman writes in who is torn between her career and family, Havrilevsky says that it’s hard but she should do both. Okay, but that’s her problem. She wants to do both and feels that she cannot. When compared with Strayed’s book, where I was underlining every other line and practically crying with understanding, this one just did not do as much for me.
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.