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Dear Bibliotherapist...


Dear Bibliotherapist,

With the drizzle of November and the dark evenings descending so early, I am feeling a strong need to either fly to Tobago or make some serious changes in my life. What they should be, I’m not sure. Join the next Iron Man Race? Jack in my job and start a new society in Alaska? Begin writing that novel? Can you give me any ideas of where to start, at least with reading?

Dear Drizzly,

Why not start building paradise at home –at least in your head? Read Lauren Groff’s sensual and playful novel Arcadia. This book takes place in a beautiful and idyllic commune, and revolves around the first child born in this idealized living space, whose name is the diminutive Bit. The community appears utopian: they are “Free People” whose mantra is to live by hard work and open minds, sharing everything, including free love, soy cheese and birthing rituals. The first third of the book is hazily gorgeous, but in the next, the outside world impinges, and carnivorous others enter the vegan paradise. The final section explores Bit’s grown-up dealings with the real world, struggling with ordinary life, harking back to his earlier lessons in living from his (in some ways) over-nurturing childhood. This is a fascinating fictional world that will help you to consider how you would build your own perfect community.

The Faber Book of Utopias by John Carey is a logical next step from Arcadia. It’s a fascinating book that explores one hundred widely differing fictional utopias in poetry and prose from 1940 BC to 1998 AD. They vary wildly from feminist ideals such as Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, to the musings of Francis Bacon to William Morris and even Charles Dickens. We see unexpected sides to many of the great thinkers represented here, some of whom show a common desire to ‘eliminate real people’ in order to make their societies work, using genetics as an aid. These short Utopian tracts will make excellent reading for the transition from one year to the next.

When desiring change, an excellent novel to wrap yourself in is the only Latin novel to survive intact from the second century AD, The Golden Ass by Apuleius. This hilarious and ribald book describes the adventures of a man named Lucius, who enjoys dabbling in magic. He believes himself capable of anything, to be practically invulnerable; then he accidentally turns himself into an ass, when avian characteristics were what he desired. As it transpires, he spends twelve months in the ass’s skin, with many picaresque adventures on the way. He eventually returns to human form, having learnt humility.

What you need now is an antidote to asinine behavior. I recommend The Antidote by Oliver Burkeman, subtitled Happiness for people who can’t stand positive thinking. (And I’m thrilled to be joining him to lead a Reading Retreat in January for The School of Life. The Antidote embraces the ‘negative path’ to happiness, suggesting that it is our constant attempts to achieve happiness that thwart us, and that we should instead use more oblique approaches to achieve a happy state, including failure, insecurity and pessimism. This paradox will entertain you while you watch the drizzle. Then, rather than forking out for a flight to Tobago, start working on ways to attain your own unique Utopia, here and now.

Ella Berthoud
The School of Life

In need of an escape somewhere in between paradise at home and Tobago? Why not join Ella and author Oliver Burkeman for A Reading Retreat on 11 to 13 January 2013 in the beautiful setting of Buckland House, Devon. For more information and to book, click here.

Posted by Ella Berthoud on 16 November 2012

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