How Should A Person Be, by Sheila Heti – A Review

I’m having an existential crisis.
Two days ago, I paid $16 for a book I’d never heard of. This was out of character for me, $16 is a lot of money and I usually only invest that kind of cash / reading time on a book I have solid reason to believe I’d enjoy. But the reviews on the back of this book (and the front, and on five devoted pages at the beginning) were just OUTSTANDING. Usually you read comments like “Boldly original… Gorgeously rendered.” Vague but verbose, inviting but not over-committal, similar to a recommendation letter or travel brochure. In the case of this book, not only was it endorsed by some pretty prominent names in the industry, the reviews were practically novels in themselves – just gushing on and on for paragraphs about the “raw, urgent depiction” of life. The author also won a closetful of awards, received a ton of endorsements, and was named a “Best Book of the Year” by eight different prestigious newspapers.
48 hours and many facial expressions later, I closed the book.
The reason for my existential crisis is this: I JUST DON’T GET IT. The entire time I was reading it I was thinking: Am I missing something here? I really must be missing something. There must be something fundamentally wrong with the way my brain works. This was a book that was allegedly supposed to CHANGE MY LIFE with its profundity (I’m not exaggerating, it was categorized as “novel / self help” at the bookstore), and was reportedly the feminist bible of our generation, or something… I’m admittedly not the most active feminist in the world, but I figured that description meant it would empower me somehow, inspire me to cast off the shackles of my oppressed female existence and rise above to become the woman / person I’m meant to be.
…It’s really a wonder I’m ever able to enjoy any book when I go in with such unreasonably grand expectations.
In any case, I did not feel inspired. For most of the book, I felt confused.
Have you ever read a poem and something about it just rubbed you the wrong way? I find myself physically squinting at poetry like this. As if my eyes can adjust and refocus to illuminate something I missed before – something that would bring the whole thing together in a way that makes more sense to me. I was also never a big fan of free verse. Make the thing rhyme, give it a cadence, stand it up straight with structure, balance, and iambic pentameter. Show me free verse that can nail a line like “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me; // The carriage held but just ourselves and Immortality” with the same haunting heartbeat. You can’t! Maybe this preference makes me an immature reader, or limits my ability to fully appreciate art… But I would much rather read complete sentences and coherent thoughts than abstract, disjointed ramblings that (literally, intentionally) have no rhyme or reason.
This is more or less how I felt reading this book. Squinting through the whole damn thing.
It was almost SO conceptual and intense that it was trying too hard. To quote Peter Griffin, it “insists” upon itself. Like, HEY! LOOK! LOOK HOW EDGY AND RAW THIS IS! IS IT MAKING YOU UNCOMFORTABLE?! DO YOU GET IT?! The protagonist’s relationship with her friends seemed flighty and erratic, her sex life decidedly unhealthy, and with the plot of the story being… erm… finding a plot to her story… I was left feeling somewhat underwhelmed with the ending.
I was hesitant to write this review because I’m almost kind-of embarrassed… like maybe my lack of reaction is an indication that I’m just not smart / open-minded / mature enough to fully grasp the awesomeness that so many others have. And if that is the case, I’m certainly not one to highlight how UNCOOL I am for not getting it.
Good or bad, though, I will say that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the book since I put it down. And upon reading other reviews online, I suspect I’m not the only one with this feedback. While I am having a really difficult time determining whether I would recommend it to others, I can’t deny that some of its assertions are resonating with me. I found myself even skimming back through it with a highlighter, to review some of the passages that stood out.
So in short, I would say it’s a book with pages and pages of pseudo-philosophical nonsense, punctuated by a few profound nuggets of wisdom.

…But definitely not worth the $16.

3 thoughts on “How Should A Person Be, by Sheila Heti – A Review

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