Thursday, January 24, 2013

Happier At Home: or, If It Won't Stop Staring At Me, I'd Better Just Read It

via,  The Happiness Project

Reading through Happier At Home is an experience I put off for ages. Not out of any particular antipathy for the book...just apathy. I'd seen my sister's forgotten copy sitting on our bookshelves for months and never gave it much thought beyond, "oh, she's coming at Christmas, so I can make sure she gets it back." Obviously, that high-minded plan never came to fruition. So I finally bit the bullet after finishing a first read-through of one of my Christmas presents and took the book off the shelf to see what I could see.

I suppose that with my characteristic penchant for amusing complaints, I ought to get all of my negative commentary out of the way first. I think the epigraphs are all trite. I confess, I had a certain predilection for them myself in my undergraduate thesis, but that particular flair for sentimentality was suggested out of me by my professor before the final draft was submitted. (To whom I also give full credit for my perpetually-renewed attempts to stop saying 'like' as a place-holder word. Thank you, Dr. Williams.) Yes, the occasional epigraph can be useful - and to be fair, I did just read another book which used them to great effect - but I think Rubin is just looking for pithy quotations to summarize her conclusions before she reaches them in her own prose...and that's like putting spoilers in the preview reel of your own film.

The prose itself is nothing to write home over. Don't get me wrong, Rubin isn't a bad writer, she's just not a particularly inspiring one. I don't claim to be that myself (though every now and then I come over all impressed at some line from an old paper or short story), but I can sure appreciate the beauty of well-crafted word-smithery. The Modern Library translations of Alexandre Dumas, Christopher Hitchens, Roald Dahl, Shakespeare, James Joyce in his short stories...these are brilliant to me. But I suppose my real complaint here isn't the lack of phrases that you read, then re-read, then read aloud for the sheer delight of reveling in a good thing well-said. No, my real complaint is the awkward phrasing. I mean, I get what she's aiming at by talking about creating "shrines" to things all over the house (A Shrine to Fun and Games, A Shrine to Children's Literature)...but shrine just comes over all cult-like: gaudy and obsequious  And possibly containing fake vials of blood or finger bones (but definitely with lots and lots of gold filigree). Or the vaguely pretentious Splendid Truths. And yes: that's always capitalized.

Plenty of the conclusions or resolutions Rubin comes to are relatively obvious. But then, she never pretends that they aren't; which I think is something to be said to her credit. However obvious and simple some of the changes she makes may be, they are all aimed at the end goal of creating a happier home. If the changes achieve the desired effect, then they're vindicated, even if they seem plain as the nose on your face.

Perhaps it's my fault for not having read the book that precedes this one: The Happiness Project. I fully admit that such could be the case. But lots of the one-word tags and shorthand phrases that she uses to refer back to some of her goals are just obfuscating. Sure, that shorthand may make sense to you, but I'm reading your book, not your mind! I don't understand how those two words translate out into a larger concept that embodies actions in pursuit of a goal. What the hell does 'spend out' mean? In what context are you advocating, 'no calculation'? (I hope not in the personal budget department.)

But the book's main appeal comes in its usefulness as a springboard for my own ideas. I think, perhaps, this may have been Rubin's goal all along. If so: well done, you clever clogs. I find myself reading through each chapter and thinking, "that's like my plan to refocus my wardrobe", or "perhaps we should resolve to kiss morning and night", or "I should get back to my initiative to visit local attractions more often." I think that it's for this reason that I haven't considered the whole book a write-off. It still has some tantalizing snippets of information, and factoids from studies that are quite fascinating. Really, I'd love for her to expound more on the things she's reading that inform the ideas she's putting forth in this book. Granted, it shouldn't turn into a glorified bibliography, but still: I want to hear more about this 'endowment effect'. And on top of the occasional nugget of interesting fact, the book is held together with a decent enough narrative that at least manages to catapult me from simply reading to considering how to implement Rubin's happiness principles into my own life.

And that is where Happier At Home comes into its own. I could take or leave the anecdotes on her own life, some of the phrasing and pretentious capitalization are awkward (and scream "I want to be Elizabeth Gilbert soooooo much!"), and I've taking to ignoring the epigraphs for the sake of my own sanity. But lots of her approaches to happiness as an attribute worth cultivating across myriad aspects of your life are useful starting blocks for personal inspiration...and that's really what you want from a book like this. Anything that promises a sure-fire, one-size-fits-all method for becoming happier or de-cluttering your office or losing that last 10 lbs is just about guaranteed to be absolute rubbish. But, as Rubin says herself, "it's from the experience of a particular individual that I learn most about myself - even if we two seem to have nothing in common." So I second that statement and say to Mrs. Rubin: write on, m'lady. You have my attention.

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