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Sound advice but poor presentation
on 24 October 2015
I was drawn to this book by a rave review by the Guardian lifestyle writer Oliver Burkeman, praising its "refreshing bluntness" and downbeat approach to the secret of living a good life. But I got much less out of it than I expected, or that other reviewers here have done. I found it 'over-written' and the constant literary references, often several per page making somewhat different points, clouded the meaning. The author's mind seemed to be teeming and the language is often over-ripe. Some of his messages are insufficiently developed, for example he frequently asks us to make choices which 'enlarge' rather than diminsh us without giving clear examples of what he means by this advice, which he must surely be able to do from his own practice since he draws on that a good deal in the book. There was too much use of cliche, for example the dreadful term "comfort zone", which is mostly used by politicians and social commentators as a clever polemical device, appeared too often.
The basic stance is sound enough if unexceptional and is summarised in two of the best sentences in the book, on page 206: "Meaning is found both in the acceptance of fate and in the struggle to remain free, to make value choices amid a constricted range of possibilities. Whatever the gods do, we are still summoned to be the guardians of our souls". And on the last page Hollis writes "The challenge to each of us is to accept the danger of our personal journey and thereby accept the gift of our lives". If more of the book had presented its ideas in such straightforward terms and been better organised it could have made a more powerful impact, on me at least. Among the myriad quotes from the literary canon, I enjoyed the humorous ones the most, for example this from Damon Runyon: "Life is eight to five... against".