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What If This Were Enough?: Essays (2018)

by Heather Havrilesky

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1389155,395 (3.98)6
"Heather Havrilesky attempts to disrupt our cultural delusions and false dichotomies, to unearth moralistic interpretations of mundane human behaviors and interrogate so-called mistakes that we've slowly internalized, and to question the glorification of suffering, dishonesty, romantic fantasy, conquest, predation, and perfectionism"--… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 9 (next | show all)
Kind of an uneven collection, some of the essays were really good (the one about Disneyland was the strongest, IMO), but there were a number that focused on pop culture/TV shows that I didn’t find as interesting. ( )
  Emily_Harris | Dec 22, 2020 |
Has an undeniable way with a sentence, but , in the end I’m not sure it amounts to much. ( )
  libraryhead | May 9, 2020 |
I bought this one because I'd seen Heather Havrilesky's TV and movie reviews and enjoyed her insights, but there's a whole lot more going on in "What If This Were Enough?" than I bargained for. Havrilesky has a special talent for seeing through the distracting nonsense that fills our super-connected everyday to the logical endgame of much of modern American capitalism. The author seems to have a special talent for nosing out the creeping, discomfiting angst that lurks behind a lot of the institutions of the still relatively new internet age, whether it's guru culture or internet nostalgia or life-hacking or luxury living. The endless choices and opportunities for communication that the internet has facilitated has, in her view, skewed both our conceptions of ourselves and our values: the opportunity to live your "best life" can lead to success, but it can also make you feel lonely and alienated, and, should you not get to where you want to be, ashamed. Her central message, which is reiterated throughout this book, is that many of these media environments are more-or-less designed to make us feel weak, needy, insufficient and alienated, and that surviving them takes the courage to push back against the hidden assumptions that they make. Considering that techno-utopianism seems to have had a rough couple of years and many Americans still feel uncertain about both their economic futures and their value in a rapidly changing economy, this might be a message that a lot of people would benefit from hearing. Frankly, I'm probably one of those people myself. I reread several of these essays numerous times: the subject matter she was discussing felt familiar to me, but the implications of judging yourself and the world using internet-age metrics can be a hard habit to break. At its very best -- and there are some very good essays in this one -- reading Harvilesky can feel like getting deprogrammed. Maybe everyone who spends a whole lot of time cruising internet newsboards to no real purpose or who dreads looking at their Facebook feed lest they feel badly about themselves when they see that someone they knew at school has gotten married or published a book or something should read this one.

Of course, polemics against the way we live now can also go too far, and there are some places where I think the author might shade into arguments a bit too sentimental to really move a lot of potential readers. She emphasizes the importance of real human connection, but I think that some will doubt that there was every all that much of that to be found among us, even before we all plugged in to the world wide web. She argues passionately that believing in and loving yourself are essential not necessarily to success but to a certain kind of human contentment, and she might be right, but you can push that argument only so hard before your prose gets a bit too purple. Some readers might be put off by Havrilesky's authorial persona. She's protective, and rightly so, of the right to feel melancholy, conflicted, and wistful in a world that increasingly sees these feelings as signs of weakness. Throughout "What If This Were Enough" we see her describe and fight her insecurities, insist on her prerogatives, and try as best she can to celebrate her successes. These essays were never meant to be dry exercises in media criticism, but how you respond to them may depend, at least a little, on how you respond to Havrilesky herself: she has, after all, put a lot of herself into them. That being said, her diagnoses of what a hyperconsumerist society that insists, however subtly, that anything less than perfection constitutes failure and sees ordinary sadness and ambiguity as things to be eliminated as quickly as possible are as insightful and timely as anything I've read in the past few years. I wish that it was a bit higher up LibraryThing's rankings: this one often feels like the sort of book that many of us need right now. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | Feb 3, 2020 |
Last night, after watching the first episode of Babylon Berlin, I fell asleep to the police scanner.

A spurned ex, also a sex offender, had abducted and blown a bullet through the brain of a University of Utah student and dumped her body in a parking lot.

I work at the University of Utah.

My brother goes to the University, and texted me the alerts from New Orleans.

Heather Havrilesky understands this cultural moment — the way that, at its worst, we can pipe in our worst nightmares directly to our frontal lobes until we collapse from exhaustion — at a spiritual level.

As I finished this essay collection on the bus, going up Highland Drive, then 1300 East, a rainbow appeared out the window, which is definitely not a sign from God that now we'll pass sensible gun control laws (because this nation hates women more than it loves guns, to quote BoJack Horseman S4), but was lovely nonetheless.

And below it was a billboard.

For Fat Boy ice cream sandwiches.

With the hashtag:


You deserve it, you worthless collection of sentient nuclei, every moment of anxiety and self-doubt and nagging sense if you log into Tinder that you could be bludgeoned in an alley and someone, somewhere would wonder what you were wearing.

Hooray cardboard-like "ice cream" "sandwiches!"

I looked at the Smokes & Vapors shop to my right, the Nielsen's frozen custard shop to my left, and suddenly everything seemed pointless and ugly, in a way I think Havrilesky would recognize as valid.

Then, I came to her final essay, with its highlight of [b: Angle of Repose|292408|Angle of Repose|Wallace Stegner|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1329151576s/292408.jpg|283706] as among the accomplishments that make life feel worth living.

And it came together, why she got it.

I knew from her Ask Polly column and [b: How to Be a Person in the World|27065373|How to Be a Person in the World Ask Polly's Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life|Heather Havrilesky|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1453058078s/27065373.jpg|47105785] that like [a: Wallace Stegner|157779|Wallace Stegner|https://images.gr-assets.com/authors/1252177524p2/157779.jpg], like me, she had lost a parent in her mid-twenties.

That changes you. I've hit year six of the After, and I see every day the subtle ways it shapes your consciousness.

At its best, it can make you more open hearted, more attuned to life's fragility and therefore its beauty.

At its worst, it can crush you in your loneliness, in how lost you feel at 25, 26, 30 on a road where you feel largely alone.

I realized my bus was on a road Stegner himself traveled often, and yet again, I felt so lucky.

I got off at my stop for my writing group, took the Draw as they call it under 1300 East from Sugar House Park to the shopping center.

And this park, Hidden Hollow, which when I was a child was mostly known for drug paraphernalia, felt storybook beautiful.

The late afternoon sun broke through the golden leaves, and kids were playing on the bridge, and I thought, prompted by the sum total of Heather's philosophy:

What if these are in fact the best conditions in which to write? What if being a writer is what I was meant to be all along?

As if to hammer home the book's points, a sign in the Hollow referenced "Appreciating messiness," and a quote by City Parks Idealist R. E. Sleater from 1922 laid out its vision for"natural rather than artificial beauty."

This didn't feel like empty Rousseauian nonsense to me at that moment. It felt like women have been routinely silenced, ignored, even slaughtered, and I was connected to a smart, funny, and weird one through something she invented in her mind.

Stegner was from a poverty-riddled background. He spent time in an orphanage in Seattle. He didn't seem destined for literary greatness. He worked his way through the University of Utah in a tile store.

He thought he might just sell tile the rest of his life; it was the belief of a handful of professors who believed in him that set him on his path.

He wasn't particularly religious, but had an unwavering faith in himself.

I emerged from the Hollow to my well-trod corner of suburbia, specifically Whole Foods, which I frequent because it takes Apple Pay and I like it and it was on the way.

My notes for this review were stained with pepperoni grease, and "I Will Survive" by Gloria Gaynor was piped in.

It felt like second-wave feminism was giving the finger to the forces trying to destroy women before death inevitably comes for us all.

We can't crumple, we can't lay down and die.

Another dessert, another hashtag:


I mean can an apple galette solve this? Probs not, but it did look tasty.

"The piano player's playing 'This Must Be the Place'
And it's a miracle to be alive."

No angel came and told Stegner or Havrilesky they had to write, to avenge the injustices of unstable childhoods and dead parents through spilled ink.

It feels even more noble, in a way, that they just did it.

I'm glad they did.

Stegner wrote this in "It Is the Love of Books I Owe Them:"

I am coming along Thirteenth East on my way to an eight o’clock class. It is a marvelous morning – it is always a marvelous morning, whether the air is hazy with autumn and the oakbrush on the Wasatch has gone bronze and gold, or whether the chestnut trees along the street are coned with blossoms ... I am enveloped in a universal friendliness. I turn at the drugstore on Second South and start uphill toward the Park Building at the head of the U drive.

Laura McCluskey's vigil is at the Park Building.

I'm reading those last pages of [b: All the Little Live Things|10805|All the Little Live Things|Wallace Stegner|https://images.gr-assets.com/books/1442665463s/10805.jpg|949594], and I can't stop the tears.

I think Heather would understand. ( )
  charlyk | Nov 15, 2019 |
A collection of essays, like a collection of most anything, have some brilliant, some damn good, some pretty good, and some that don't connect. Many of the first essays were just perfect, many of the following were quite good. She can write wonderfully. She will also get the reader laughing, and in the midst of appreciating that humor, that reader will realize what a profound point she has made. The range of topics is broad and engaging. I appreciate this collection for how it made me think, ponder, and laugh.

I don't normally quote back cover blurbs, but I can't resist this one by Julie Beck from The Atlantic:
"Havrilesky writes things that are like opening up the fridge and finding the universe inside." ( )
  jphamilton | Sep 19, 2019 |
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From the day we are born, the world tells us lies about who we are, how we should live, and what we should sacrifice to cross some imaginary finish line to success and happiness.
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"Heather Havrilesky attempts to disrupt our cultural delusions and false dichotomies, to unearth moralistic interpretations of mundane human behaviors and interrogate so-called mistakes that we've slowly internalized, and to question the glorification of suffering, dishonesty, romantic fantasy, conquest, predation, and perfectionism"--

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