Non-Fiction Book Review: The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking by Oliver Burkeman

5/5 Stars

Note: This review refers to an uncorrected and unpublished proof copy, provided by Penguin Group (Canada) through the Goodreads Giveaways program.

The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking is described as “a self-help book for people who hate self-help books”. I’ll admit, I’m probably the ideal reader for this kind of book. I do hate self-help books. The problem is, I hate self-help books enough that if The Antidote were to be found only in the self-help section of the book store, I would never find it. Or if I did accidentally stumble upon it, I would automatically assume that some self-help guru thought they could trick unwitting nay-sayers into buying into the ‘cult of optimism’ by appealing to their curmudgeonly position only to perform some sleight of hand mid-way through to end up at the same, tired “Be Positive” message that is pandered to us everywhere else. I sincerely hope that Penguin doesn’t choose to market The Antidote as a self-help book, because the genre doesn’t do Burkeman’s work justice.

The Antidote is both a philosophy and psychology text. It analyzes the 20th and 21st century’s obsession with happiness and not only questions the ways in which we choose to pursue the elusive emotion, but why we bother to pursue it at all. It raises interesting questions about the things we are taught to value in life and the validity of our assumptions about what makes us happy in the first place. Not surprisingly, to any of the realists and pessimists out there, pop culture gurus have it all wrong. The ‘cult of optimism’ that Burkeman deconstructs is poisoning our minds and lives, ultimately making us less happy and content. The Antidote successfully explains why the societies that most aggressively seek happiness are often the most discontent and unhappy in the world.

But The Antidote is not, in itself, a self-help book. It points the way for those who are interested in getting deeper into a study of the “negative path” to happiness. I have a virtual shopping cart full of new, interesting-looking reads on everything from Stoicism and Buddhism to Business and Marketing Strategies—and none of them are self-help titles. Burkeman’s “negative path” is not a strategy for sneaking up on happiness through negativity. It is not really about seeking happiness at all. It is a guide to ways of looking at the world that do not directly value happiness and how letting go of our obsession with the emotions (and its antitheses) might actually be the closest that we get to achieving it.

The Antidote is short and concise. It is well-written, easy to understand without being condescending. Burkeman tackles complex philosophical and psychological theories and leaves the reader with something tangible and useful to everyday life. In each chapter he discusses a different “negative path,” but he ties the paths together well and refers back to his thesis often enough that the reader is never left wondering how each philosophy relates to the next, or to the pursuit of happiness itself.

Overall, I believe The Antidote is a huge success. As a natural Stoic (I would never have known to classify myself as such before reading this book) I found my own personal world-view to be validated. Many of the personal anxieties I’ve had, stemming from being a pessimist in a world so blindly focused on optimism, have been deflated. I realize that, in the greater scheme of things, my way of seeing has been much more common historically and that this obsession with happiness for the sake of happiness is as much a contrivance of the modern era as are microwave dinners. I now have an arsenal (in my virtual shopping cart) of like-minded philosophers from which to hone my argument. It is actually a relief to be able to put the words some of the things that I have instinctively felt my entire life. I look forward to looking more deeply into some of these ideas and solidifying my own personal philosophy.

My only complaints about this book are not actually about the book at all. And really, I should call them concerns rather than complaints. I am concerned that The Antidote will be marketed as a self-help book, and that it will never reach the audience it deserves. I am also confused by the book jacket description of it as a travelogue. Of course Burkeman does travel in the course of his research, but it is not a travelogue usual sense of the word. The book is entirely about the ideas that he is pursue and never about where he goes in the course of his pursuit. Many chapters I would be hard-pressed to recall where they occurred (with the exception of a couple of more obvious references). I was a little put off by these two descriptions. I entered into a draw for the book as a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway, but likely wouldn’t have purchased this book based on the cover and blurb. I was pleasantly surprised, obviously. And having read it, I will likely purchase a few copies for people I believe will benefit from its message once it is available. Like I said, I’m concerned that The Antidote won’t reach the audience it deserves.

But all I can do is my part, and here it is. I’m spreading the word. the Antidote is a great little book that might just change your life, or at least your perceptions of it. A truly genuine 5/5 stars from this reader. I hope this is the beginning of a change in cultural perceptions, I hope the “negative path” takes off and revolutionizes the way we see ourselves and our world. But if it doesn’t, at least it give us the tools for change on a personal level.

Book Reviews: Reader Requests!

I’m waaaaay behind on my book reviews. So here is a list of some of the books that I’ve read recently. Let me know which ones you would like to see a review for, and I’ll do those ones first.

Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

White is for Witching, by Helen Oyeyemi

Garden Spells, Sarah Addison Allen

Sugar Queen, Sarah Addison Allen

The Peach Keepers, Sarah Addison Allen

Glimmerglass, by Jenna Black

A Red Herring without Mustard, by Alan Bradly

I know why the caged bird sings, by Maya Angelou

The Birth House, by Ami McKay

There is a sad lack of SF on this list, but that’s because I’ve already left it too long to do proper reviews on some of the recent SF I’ve read. The above books are simple enough that I can let time and other novels get between me and the books without losing too much… I’m working on a review for Alistair Reynolds’ “Revelation Space” but I need to skim it for a refresher. So, anything spark your interest?

Non-Fiction Book Review: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

ImageIf you haven’t heard of Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality yet, then you can send me a nice thank you note for this post. Maybe some wheat-free brownies, if you’ve never heard of Dawkins’ or The Magic of Reality. Because you owe me, now.

The Magic of Reality is a book that I wish had been written in 1995, so that it could have fed my science-hungry little brain when it still accepted real-life instead of retreating into itself in an ostrichy homage to make-believe. It might have changed my life, literally. Although, if it had been I might, right now, be a exobiologist (it’s a thing!) instead of a struggling sci-fi writer with an unhealthy penchant for books. I’ll let you decide how great a loss that would be.

Hint: It would be earth-shattering.

Now, if you’re not already a massive Dawkins fan–well, I won’t tell you how to live your life. But we can’t be friends anymore. However, even if you don’t support his call for militant atheism you may still be able to appreciate The Magic of Reality. Because it’s not about atheism per-say. It’s about reality. Specifically, it is about how we know what’s really true–the book’s subtitle–and what is myth, legend, or just plain lies.

And what’s best about this book is that it’s for kids! The Magic of Reality is Dawkins’ attempt to make science and reality interesting for kids. Even kids who aren’t otherwise that into science, kids who like the ideas but not necessarily the equations, hypotheses, and lab-experiments that don’t involve things that go boom. Kids like me!

And, if you’re like me, you probably had a moment–possibly after you just fell asleep on your desk and drooled on your assignment sheet–where the question dawned upon you: When did Science get so boring? Like me, you probably have fond memories of your elementary school years where you learned about volcanoes and dinosaurs and outer-space. You know, back when science was fun!

Unfortunately, there comes a time in most school curricula when the fun seems to get siphoned out and replaced with pedantic memorization of terminology, formulas, and diagrams. For most of us, Science class becomes just another thing you have to force yourself through in order to pass onto the next grade.

Sure, there are a few who are intrigued by the more practical applications of these courses. Fortunately there are enough that we still have people who go on to become chemists, physicists, and biologists. But for most of us, school ruins science. Forever.

The Magic of Reality makes Science fun and interesting again. No, really. It does. Dawkins’ begins each chapter with a question about the world, or the universe, and how it works. He then discusses ways in which human beings have tried to explain these things–like rainbows, earthquakes, and miracles–without the aid of science. He tells colourful myths from all across the globe which, along with the rest of the text, are illustrated by the brilliant artist Dave McKean (you may recognize his work with Neil Gaiman on Coraline).


After poking a little fun at ourselves for all of the silly things we have believed about the world in the past, Dawkins goes on to tell us the truth about the world. And he tells us how we know that it’s the truth through science. Although The Magic of Reality is a kids’ book it never comes off as dumbed down or patronizing. Dawkins gives his readers an admirable amount of credit which, for the 13 year old reader, will likely add a lot of credence to what he has to say. He’s also not shy about pointing out where his knowledge is limited and never tries to explain things vaguely when he doesn’t have the necessary know-how.

As an adult who, as I’m sure is true of many of you, hasn’t though much about the nitty gritty of Science–elements, atoms, sound waves, natural selection, etc.–The Magic of Reality is a wonderful refresher course. Even topics that I’m a littler more well versed in were worth a read, simply for the unique perspective that Dawkins takes. And to be honest, there’s a lot of “basic” stuff in here that I haven’t fully grasped until reading this book. Impressive, sir, impressive.

McKean’s illustrations are beautiful, often full-page, works of art. The entire text is wonderfully supported and enhanced by these images, and the effect is quite stunning. In case that isn’t enough, Dawkins includes website addresses for video demonstrations, and virtual experimentation tools to supplement the work itself. If The Magic of Reality doesn’t reach out to an internet savvy multi-tasking pre-teen brain, I’m not sure there is a print media capable of the task.

Oh. In case you’re not interested in print media version–check out the iPad app.

Really, the only beef I have with this book is Dawkins’ handling of the myths. I love that he included them, and I love that he included Judeo-Christian myths as well. I think this is important to give a little perspective on why we believe the things we believe (but I won’t go into that too much, here. I’ll either be preaching to the choir or causing a ruckus)

I think The Magic of Realitya great way to teach kids how to evaluate the information that they receive on a daily basis from all kinds of sources–church, school, parents, television, books–about what makes a fact a fact, and how to decide what is true.

What I don’t love about the inclusion of the myths is that they seem to be used merely as a tool to demonstrate our past ignorance and celebrate our intellectual development in the last couple of centuries. Since this is a book about truth and knowledge, it would have been nice if Dawkins gave a little props to his fellows in the Social Sciences and Arts who study myths and what they can teach us about the cultures from which they originate. Dawkins treats myths as silly stories, kind of fun to talk about, but ultimately discrediting them as “not true”. This is an unfortunate and potentially damaging position for Dawkins to take, and to encourage children to take, when so many cultures are losing their traditions and beliefs to modernization.

Folklore and Mythology, although not strictly “true”, still have much to teach us. We can derive cultural information from oral-histories and traditions that are not implicit in the mere study of artifacts and burial sites. Mythology helps to supplement what little information we have about many ancient religious practices, ritual objects, and cosmologies. Not to mention what it can tell us about social structures, gender roles, cultural taboos, etc. Myths should be treated as living history, and I feel Dawkins should have given them their due.

That being said, The Magic of Reality is definitely a book that I would recommend to any and everyone. Even those people who think science is boring. Because there is nothing boring about life, and that’s essentially what The Magic of Reality is all about. Dawkins does a fantastic job of showing just how spectacular the world around us is, even without magic and miracles.