As I so often do, I found myself in a bookstore the other day, this one a branch of Rizzoli tucked into a Somerset House hallway.
What did I find there? Books on hygge and books on lagom. Books on beekeeping and books on silence. Books on the Japanese art of decluttering. Books that told you just how and where to buy the furniture and accessories that would help you establish a mindful space in your home.
Books that promised to teach you the practice of mindful drawing, or singing. Mindful baking and mindful gardening.
Woodworking books. Pottery books. Books about making things. About craft, craftsmanship, craeft.
Books with photographs: of working-class communities now demolished, and the vanished lifeways that went with them; of moments in time when subversion was possible, and fun, and stylish, and crackling with libidinous charge. Books with photographs of brutalist ruins.
Books about slowness and simplicity.
And then of course the sad little books published by Alain de Botton’s School of Life, the ones that promise in their eighty or so tasteful pages to help you master Sex or Relationships, or even Reform Capitalism. (Perhaps most heartbreakingly of all, among these: a small book of Small Pleasures.)
It can’t just be me for whom an inventory like this is neon-sign-in-the-night blatant, right? The entire bookshop struck me as a single, extended, anguished cry for help. It could simply be an eversion of one Rizzoli buyer’s mind, I suppose. But that conclusion isn’t really supported by the fact that these books are available in the profusion and variety they are, that the market thinks this is what the market wants.
What’s so easily diagnosed in this particular selection of titles, the thing that’s so howlingly present in its negation, is the gnawing suspicion that we’re Doing It Wrong: that some group of people situated elsewhere in space and time knew how to do adulting better than we ourselves, and that by taking up their practices we can graft onto ourselves some measure of the balance, certainty and serenity we ascribe to them.
That’s what all the concern for “sparking joy” says to me — the increasingly desperate grasping after some displaced or vanished mindfulness, craft and coziness discernible in all the books I saw at Somerset House, and all the many others like them. These products are aimed squarely at the eternal, if deluded, optimist that lives in all of in us, the hopeful little homunculus that whispers, “Yes! Here, finally, is the thing that’s going to change my life. Buying this will transform me from the hot mess I am into the imperturbable urban bodhisattva I so dearly wish I were.”
Knowing that this process is at work hardly immunizes you against it, of course, nor am I above being roped in by it myself. Last year I bought a book called The Scottish Bothy Bible, with the idea that it’d help me plan a solo trek to one of these remote, rustic, communally-maintained, almost entirely unserviced shelters, to mark the occasion of my fiftieth birthday. The truth is, of course, that I can’t imagine actually doing any such thing the way my life is currently structured, certainly not in the dwindling store of weeks available to me before the birthday in question. And so the book sits there on a side table, its cover slowly fading in the low sunlight, serving mostly as a reminder that such things as solo treks to remote cabins are possible…in principle.
I imagine this is the fate of most such books. Where they promise us a golden land of escape waiting for us just past the edge of our obligations — a space and time in which to unclutter our souls, make a temple of our homes, and replace our neurotic squabbling families with tasteful Kinfolk limned in lambent candlelight — I’m willing to bet most just feed the dissatisfaction that sets in after the brief dopamine jolt of a consummated purchase wears off. And this, of course, triggers the cycle anew.
So how to step off of this rollercoaster, and come to actual peace with ourselves as we are? I wish I knew, obviously. (If I had any concrete idea, I’d be doing it, believe me.) But I do feel like I’ve managed to cobble together a few hints.
The first derives from a point the Australian feminist and socialist Lynne Segal makes a number of times and a number of ways in her recent book Radical Happiness: that the only lasting or deeply meaningful joys are those we share with others. Consciously or otherwise, so many of the books at Rizzoli reproduce the neoliberal argument that while the way our society is structured may well have broken you, it’s your individual responsibility to fix yourself (ideally by spending money on books that tell you how to go about doing so, and the lifestyle accessories those books commend to you). Segal insists, by contrast, that while repair does happen through joy, joy can only fully come into being when it is experienced collectively.
As it happens, I’ve come to understand that I’m wired in such a way as to need deep draughts of solitude and silence simply to recover myself, to be able to be present for others or to do any useful work at all, and that this tendency is increasing over time. So it’s clearly not aloneness in and of itself that I’m objecting to. What I object to is the idea that the project of restoration whose contours are so vividly defined by all the books on sale at the Somerset House Rizzoli is one that can be meaningfully attempted alone.
The other pernicious idea that leaps out from these titles is the thought that a complete and realized life is something that happens elsewhere and to other people. For Rizzoli’s customers — New Yorkers or Londoners, for the most part, however cultivated and widely traveled — it evidently still works to project the desired state of being-in-the-world onto dreamscapes like Scandinavia or far-off Japan. But having spent my fair share of life time in the grim, tobacco-stained oppression of Tokyo offices and the frantic overload of Tokyo streets, I can tell you that hardly a soul you’ll meet there is an icon of living serenity, certainly not any more than any of the folks you encounter on Regent Street or the 6 train. Similarly, it isn’t like a single one of the people I’ve ever met in Oslo, Aarhus or Goteborg actually have their lives sorted just so, in the ways implied by the many, many volumes on hygge and its equivalents.
So there may indeed be a completeness to be found in this life, or a place where the pace, scale and ordering of the everyday environment are commensurate with the deepest needs of one’s soul, and I imagine that for some of us it may take some doing to locate them. But at least as far as I can tell, the qualities which make for serenity and purpose don’t seem to be deposited in fuller measure in any of the locales or cultures which are typically held up to us as exemplary of these things.
I’m probably missing the point, or overthinking it. What can I say? Leafing through the things I encountered in that bookstore made me a good deal sadder than I was when I walked through the door. Maybe the only good that came of it was taking away with me a far more acute diagnosis of the thing so many of us manifestly seem to be struggling with.
Maybe that’s useful in and of itself. Maybe it will have to be.
*Adam Greenfield is the founder and managing director of Urbanscale in New York City. He is a prominent and passionate advocate for the human-centered design of technological systems. Adam’s most recent book is Radical Technologies (Verso, 2017). The Guardian called it:
“A tremendously intelligent and stylish book on the ‘colonization of everyday life by information processing’ calls for resistance to rule by the tech elite… a landmark primer and spur to more informed and effective opposition.”
Adam is also the author of Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing (2006) and Urban Computing and its Discontents (2007, with Mark Shepard).