Reviewing Tim Kreider’s “We Learn Nothing”

We Learn Nothing paperback cover, published by Simon & Schuster (2013)

Tim Kreider is a cartoonist and essayist who was a regular contributor to the New York Times. I’ve previously referenced his article “I Am a Meme Now”, which I absolutely adored. It was that essay that prompted me to buy this collection. It features a number of his excellent sketches, too.

Overall, some essays were incredibly powerful, and I’ll 100% read them again and again. Whilst others were middling, and a few even left a rather bad taste in my mouth. Yet I must have enjoyed this book a great deal to write a review this long!

To review the book, I thought I’d highlight six (out of 15) essays that perfectly encapsulate my thoughts about the book as a whole.

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Five newsletters I like

I’ll be launching my own email newsletter very soon, and so I thought I’d take this opportunity to share five newsletters I regularly read and enjoy.

Assuming you’re like me and you check your email inbox at least once per day, newsletters can be a great way to follow the work of your favourite content creators. There’s no interference from an algorithm that causes you to miss the latest update. Instead, you’ve invited your favourite creator into your inbox.

Email newsletters come in many forms. Some are similar to blogs, focusing on a particular theme or subject matter and writing content centred around it. Whilst mine will be a curated newsletter. What this means is that it will feature a collection of links and general info all in one place with the aim of sending you to other pages on the web.

The following five fall into one of these two categories:

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Reading lists and red flag books

A red flag over the front covers of six books (from left to right): The Millionaire Next Door, Atlas Shrugged, Zero to One, Can't Hurt Me, Think and Grow Rich, and How to Win Friends and Influence People.

If you invite me round your house and you have a bookshelf, I’m going to have a nose. Wherever there’s books, I want to know what’s there—even if I know I’ll never read anything of what’s on the shelf.

Perhaps that’s why I also love a good online reading list. Whether it’s a blog post or a Twitter thread or even a video, I’ll stop and read/listen.

So when I stumbled upon Brian Feroldi’s thread of 20 books that should be read again and again (back in early July), I stopped my mindless Twitter-binge and had a scroll. My reaction was much the same as everyone else: a feeling of despair at the soullessness of such a list.

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The male gaze is inverted in Eliza Clark’s compelling book “Boy Parts”

I got handsy. It’s hard to just look, isn’t it? It’s hard to look, and not touch, not squeeze, or prod, or squash all that soft, private skin they show me.

It takes a compelling book to compel me to write about it. But that’s exactly what Eliza Clark’s Boy Parts is, a compulsive read that gripped my attention so successfully my eyes did not glaze over a single word. When I’d turned the last page, I craved more.

Boy Parts paperback cover, published by Influx Press (2020)

Through the eyes of the protagonist, Irina Sturges, we get a subversive take on the male gaze. A photographer who specialises in—shall we say revealing—photos of men, the male flesh is for Irina to scrutinise.

Whether we’re knowingly aware or not, we are well-acquainted with the male gaze in our media and literature. For those unclear as to what the male gaze refers to, Wikipedia defines the male gaze as:

[The] act of depicting women and the world, in the visual arts and in literature, from a masculine, heterosexual perspective that presents and represents women as sexual objects for the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer.

The unique lens of Irina Sturges gives us a story where men are objects. It pushes us to think about the way women have been framed in our media for decades. But the narrative is more than just an inverted gaze, it’s a story where we can never be sure of reality. Victim blaming and gaslighting galore, Irina’s world is tinged by trauma and the lines between pain and pleasure are blurred. Told predominantly through her voice, whether we are meant to sympathise with Irina is a decision best left to the reader.

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Explore the infinite lives of Nora Seed shelved within Matt Haig’s “The Midnight Library”

CW: depression, suicide

What if you discovered that between life and death there was a library? On the shelves are an infinite number of books. Contained within the pages is a life you could have lived. What’s the first regret you would undo?

This is the question posed to the protagonist of Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Nora Seed. Nora is a 35-year-old woman whose life didn’t go the way she wanted. There had been many dreams and all of them failed to manifest into reality. Then a tragedy close to home kickstarts a string of events that lead to Nora’s final decision: to die.

But before she can get her wish, her old school librarian invites her to browse the collection of lives she could have lived. Within each is another Nora Seed she could have been if she had made different decisions. It is here where Nora’s journey to find the perfect life begins.

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15 books I enjoyed reading in 2020

Every year I set myself a reading goal. I set it high enough to be a consistent nudge to read often but never too high that reading becomes stressful.

My goal was to read 35 books in 2020, and I read a total of 45.

It was the first year that theatre plays didn’t contribute to that final number, which made reading in 2020 a completely different experience to the previous couple of years. Instead, I read a great deal more non-fiction than I normally would, which I found to be equally as pleasurable as reading fiction. I also learnt a lot, too.

I enjoyed most books I read last year, but I’ve decided to list 15 I felt were worth highlighting. I’ve listed them in the order I read them. I considered ranking them but that led to overthinking, and I already have enough of that in my life.

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Power comes at a great price in Jordanna Jade’s “The Eternal Garden”

NOTE: The author has since made edits to her book. The physical copy I read may now differ from the newer version.

I have known Jordanna Jade since Year 10, and we’ve been friends since Year 12. She’s always been the person scribbling in a notebook, the person I’ve known with 100% certainty would publish a book. She was the kind of student who could convince any tutor she was hanging on their every word and taking extensive notes. In reality, she was penning the next chapter of her novel. Over the years, sitting beside her in class, her novel took many shapes. The Eternal Garden is its final form.

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A non-fiction prescription: “This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor” by Adam Kay

No matter how hard you think a junior doctor works, they work ten times harder. This is Going to Hurt is a collection of diary entries from Adam Kay’s six years on the front line of the NHS. Often funny, at times stomach-churning, and inevitably heartbreaking. This is life on and (very rarely) off the hospital ward, “verrucas and all.”

Divided into 10 sections, each dedicated to a specific post throughout his career, the bite-sized storytelling makes it the perfect book if you only have sporadic moments for reading.

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Matthew Walker’s “Why We Sleep” will make you rethink pulling an all-nighter ever again

Sleep consumes a third of our lives and its necessity often feels like a burden considering how busy we all are. It’s no wonder so many of us will delay a good night’s rest to complete work or continue chatting with loved ones into the early hours. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead!” Right?

Matthew Walker is here to tell you that this is an attitude that needs to stop. Not only is poor sleep damaging your health right now, the longer it continues the more years it’s likely to shave off your life. In fact, Walker is here to tell you that sleep is the foundation of our health, perhaps even more important than our essential need for food, water and exercise.

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“How To Go To Work” is your survival guide to entering the world of employment

When I got my first full-time job there was so much I didn’t understand and was not prepared for. Having now had over a year’s experience of full-time work, there’s still a lot I never learnt or fully understood. And I know there are many my age or younger who are in a similar position.

Published by Penguin Books, 2020

Lucy Clayton and Steven Haines recognised this disconnect between young people leaving education and the world of work, and they wrote the instruction manual on beginning your career. Whether you’ve never had a job before or if you’re still in the early years of your career, How To Go To Work is a helpful read.

Post-introduction, the books kicks off with busting some myths about careers advice. By starting with dispelling the common myths we’ve all heard, it’s clear from the get-go that pragmatic optimism is the intended takeaway from the book. You will be successful and you can find the job you want. It’s a feeling that radiates with every section and is precisely what I felt when I turned the final page.

Going to work is an enormous, life-changing thing. You’ll never be the same again. You begin knowing nothing and then, very quickly, you can never unknow what it’s like to be bone tired from a fourteen-hour shift or the exhilaration of receiving your first pay slip. The experiences you are about to have will change you forever. And yet, no one is really preparing you for them.

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