s Thoughts from the Physics Chick: Book review: What Should I do with my Life?

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Book review: What Should I do with my Life?

I liked this book well enough the first time I read it. Then I went to buy it from Amazon for Melyngoch’s graduation and discovered that all of the reviewers had hated it. So then I decided that I’d better re-read it to figure out what they hated about it.

The book is a collection of stories of people who are trying to find some sort of meaning in their lives – people who are trying to answer the question posed by the title of the book. There isn’t any other unifying theme, and there’s no preachiness or heavy-handed moralizing. It’s just one man writing about a couple dozen people he met whose stories seemed interesting.

The main complaint against the book was, I believe, that the book was full of rich, pretentious, spoiled people who were whiny and dissatisfied with their cushy lives. That’s a fair objection, I suppose. (And on re-reading it I think it’s better that I didn’t buy it for Melyngoch after all.) On the other hand, why shouldn’t people be allowed to try and find some sort of meaning in their lives? Maybe very poor people are too busy working to ponder much on the grander meaning of their lives, but if someone can be rich and successful and still not feel happy and fulfilled, I think that’s a significant commentary on the nature of human existence.

Anyway, this book is sort of a cross between a self-help book, a series of journalistic interviews, and a philosophical treatise. I’m not sure if it strikes a good balance or if it fails slightly at each of them. Po Bronson (the author) gets much more involved in the lives of these people than a good journalist should. On the other hand, he’s not really a journalist, so why shouldn’t he help out and offer advice where he can? But then what makes him qualified to offer advice in the first place? And he does, of course, put his "spin" on every story he encounters, so it’s hard to say that the telling is unbiased.

It’s interesting that so few of these people have had any kind of religious upbringing, or that it appears to offer so little help if they have. It’s not that I don’t know people raised religious that struggle with life’s meaning, but I think it’s a solid place to start, at least. And I’m amazed that the values systems against which so many of these people struggle. They have to live up to their families, communities, groups of friends and coworkers. My family is fairly laid-back, considering, and I don’t feel like I’m competing horribly with my friends or with others. (And maybe the fact that I’m in grad school and therefore appear to be "doing something" with my life is helping. Wait ’till I graduate and can’t find a job, people.)

At very least, I think that I’ll suggest this book when it’s my turn in the Blue Beta Book Club.


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