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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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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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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I recommend “Someone Who Will Love You In All Your Damaged Glory” by Raphael Bob-Waksberg

Between the tweets about Brexit and Trump, the Twitter algorithm likes to show me snippets of people’s love lives. From self-deprecating jokes inspired by heartbreak and sassy memes about your cheating ex to inspiring quotes with handclap emojis about not faking orgasms and #RelationshipGoals. Even those not looking for love seem compelled to tell everyone just how happy they are in their independent singleness. I mean, there is a lot more bed to go around when you don’t have to share the sheets, am I right? Love: it’s either the inescapable ruler of our daily lives or it’s waiting on the sidelines for its chance to assert dominion over us. But what’s so great about love?

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R. J. Palacio’s “Wonder” will break your heart, but it will heal it too

My name is August.
I won’t describe what I look like.
Whatever you’re thinking,
it’s probably worse

It was this blurb that kept me coming back to this book every time I passed it in Tesco. If I had known the first time I picked it up that this was a story that would make me cry so hard I’d have to stop reading several times, it wouldn’t have ended up back on the shelf. But for many weeks Wonder would avoid the trolley, my brain prioritising food over the non-existent space for another addition to my TBR pile. Until one day, curiosity got the better of me, and Palacio’s novel got through self-checkout and found its way to my bookshelf.

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Depression: brutally and honestly portrayed in Sally Brampton’s memoir “Shoot the Damn Dog”

CW: depression, suicide

No-one’s experience with “the black dog” can be a carbon copy of someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from or find comfort in hearing other people’s stories. Today, I want to talk about Sally Brampton’s experience that she beautifully details in her eye-opening and brutal memoir, Shoot the Damn Dog.

First published in 2008 by Bloomsbury. Pictured is the 2018 paperback edition with a new afterword by Brampton’s daughter, Molly Powell.

Sally Brampton, founding editor of Elle magazine, is by no means an expert on mental illness. But she is an expert on her own journey with depression, and in the beginning she didn’t really understand what that meant. Back then, and even today, the idea that depression is an illness can be hard to understand for some, especially for those who’ve never experienced it. This is the perfect starting point, allowing the reader to learn just as Brampton does as she walks us through her long long road to recovery. On this road she will try every antidepressant at their highest dosages, check in to psychiatric wards and AA meetings, and open up to us about her two suicide attempts.

Just as Brampton cannot speak for anyone else’s unique experience of mental illness, I cannot speak for anyone else’s reading experience but my own. There’s no holding back in this book and this can understandably be distressing for those who may have had similar experiences, and some may learn nothing new.

I, however, found her story helped me better understand myself. For example, one section describes the dangers of abandoning oneself: “If somebody hurts you and you pretend that you are fine, you abandon yourself.” She goes on to list several other scenarios where someone with depression might abandon themselves, as described to her by a therapist. I could relate to almost every single one , and it reminded me of my own counselling. The familiarity was comforting, only for an epiphany to then follow with a passage on the next page. She goes on to describe a state of detachment defined as being “wantless and needless”:

If you adopt the position of not wanting or needing anything emotionally, you are unlikely to get hurt. To sustain that entirely, you withdraw emotionally and even physically from others, although you may show a perfectly sociable exterior when you are out in the world. It is the interior that is fiercely defended. Some people (as I did) adopt this as a solution to emotional pain, forgetting that we are communal animals, biologically and genetically determined to interact with others. The solution then becomes the problem.

I recognised myself in Brampton’s words, and I genuinely believe it’s had an impact on how I think about myself in relation to the world around me. I can be quite an apathetic person, and I had never considered it might be a coping mechanism. It was precisely this revelation that made me want to recommend this book. I truly believe you can learn a lot about depression from her memoir. It’s informative whilst also telling an honest and compelling story.

Sadly, in 2016, Sally Brampton died by suicide. But without hope and recovery, she might never have found a stage in her life when she could have written this book. The fact this memoir exists shows that recovery is possible. Her daughter’s afterword is a heartfelt message that emphasises that Brampton’s suicide does not rob the book of its power.