Book Review: ‘What If This Were Enough?’ by Heather Havrilesky

What If This Were EnoughBecause the state of cultural confusion we’re experiencing is anything but trivial. Day in and day out, through aspirational products and heartfelt-seeming commercial messages, in the psychobabble of gurus and the motivational rhythms of Facebook testimonies, between the lines of pop songs and the dialogue of TV comedies, we are taught to communicate triumph while privately experiencing ourselves as inadequate and our lives as disappointing. Instead of recognizing these ingested messages as toxic, we learn to treat our humanity itself as poisonous, to treat our most human desires as a kind of sickness that can only be cured with outside help. Our self-respect, our pride, and our anger are encountered as personal failings, signs of how far off the path of empowerment and enlightenment we’ve strayed. Day by day, minute by minute, we are robbed of the present.

I really, really liked the idea of this essay collection since I believe it to be an incredibly important and relevant topic of conversation, especially in this day and age. However, it felt like the author lacked depth in her overall argument, since a lot of what she explains in the introduction isn’t actually explored much further.

From the enforced cheer of American life to the celebration of survivalism, from the allure of materialism to our misunderstandings of romance and success, What If This Were Enough? deconstructs some of the most poisonous and misleading messages we ingest today, all while suggesting new ways we might navigate our increasingly bewildering world. Writer and advice columnist Heather Havrilesky emphasizes the importance of locating the miraculous within the mundane. She wants us to consider than very question: what if this were enough? The only solution, she says, is to embrace right now: this very imperfect moment.

It seems to me that Havrilesky’s only argument was that the rise of technology and digital media has led to the general population, especially young people who have come of age with social media, to feel inadequate and even depressed because it feels like nothing will ever be enough to satisfy us and our unrealistic expectations and/or goals. I agree 100%. But she really doesn’t take the argument much further than that. A lot of the essays seem to be about an underlying theme that capitalism controls our lives and convinces us we need materialistic commodities to keep us sane in an increasingly consumer-driven world. Okay, cool. The idea that capitalism has put a spell on society and convinced us we need to buy things we don’t need to feel good about ourselves is nothing new, ask anyone. If you’re going to make such a sweeping generalization about society at large, you’re gonna have to go a lot deeper than that. Insipid anecdotes from your personal life and your own observations of pop culture and feminism, which occupy the last half of the book, are not enough to bring it all together.

What If This Were Enough? is very well written, well rounded, and well researched. The first few essays really make you feel like this will be the book that will explain everything you haven’t been able to articulate. But then it feels like the author didn’t have much else to say about all that, and she decides to fill the rest of her word quota with analyses of pop culture and HBO television series. Congrats, you can analyze a cultural text. Just figure out how to bring it together with what you brilliantly put together in your introduction, and then your next book will probably be a lot better. I feel like the essays in this book were supposed to at least attempt to answer some of the questions offered by its premise, but for me it seemed as though Havrilesky truly didn’t have much else to say about embracing right now and rejecting the toxic messages that we internalize through our toxic culture. Look for the miracles in the mundane, and embrace your imperfect moments. That’s pretty much all she has to say about that. I just wish an essay collection with this very relevant and important subject matter had gone so much deeper, because I believe it would resonate very much with twenty-first century readers. Much like the feeling of inadequacy that the author wants us to reject, What If This Were Enough? doesn’t feel like enough. 3/5 stars. 

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