Book Review: How to Be a Person in the World

Under the name “Ask Polly,” Heather Havrilesky writes a popular advice column for The Cut at New York Magazine. How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life is a collection of some of the most beloved of those columns, as well as others that are new to the book.

The most famous advice columns from the past, such as Ann Landers and Dear Abby, often had a recognizable format. Readers sent in questions and Ann or Abby provided short definitive answers. For example, when a mother asked whether her son and his wife, who were planning to split after two months of marriage, should return their wedding gifts, Ann Landers responded with two sentences that could be summarized in one word: No.

“Ask Polly” is something else entirely. The questions are not about returning wedding presents, the best meatloaf recipe, or whether toilet paper should go over or under (yes, the last two really were popular topics in Ann Landers, among other weightier ones). They are about some of the most vexing, sad, complicated, recurring, and profound issues of contemporary life.

Examples (paraphrases are mine) include:

“I so desperately want to be close to someone, but I am bad at the sustained small talk that gets conversations going.”

“I’m dealing with crushing grief from the sudden death of my youthful father and no one understands.”

“Should I quit my dreary job to try for something more meaningful when I still need the money?”

And, “should I work on my career or have a baby?”

What makes Ask Polly truly special, though, are Havrilesky’s answers. They go on for pages and pages. It is compelling reading. Polly will make you think. She will make you feel. If you are that person who has sought Polly’s advice, you will find that she is searching for the heart of who you really are. And she will probably find it, even if you haven’t. She seems especially well suited to empathize with you for a revealing reason – she’s been there, too. Many of the issues that her readers are struggling with are ones she has faced, too – and not just the ones for which she is blameless, such as the death of her father at a young age.

What readers get from Polly’s answers is not just guidance but a philosophy of life. Polly wants you to be you, in all your “gently worn” messiness, quirkiness, and humanity. Trying instead to be nice or to be the person someone else wants you to be will ultimately leave you cold. Being you means treating yourself well and (to steal an old tag line from an ad for the army) being all that you can be. It means treating others well and being there for them.

Havrilesky is married with children, and she nudges her letter-writers in that direction if she thinks it is what they really want. But she is not a matrimaniac. In fact, she is especially adept at recognizing when her letter writers have fallen for a fairy tale. As she said in “My Mind Likes Imagining Boys,” “You have to train yourself to romanticize life outside of men and create a tapestry that’s just as rich without a guy in it” and “when we fixate on boys starting at a very young age, every pointless, empty interaction with a dude starts to seem powerful and electric.”

One of the most welcome themes in How to Be a Person in the World is the value of friendship. When readers can’t seem to find romantic love, Polly often suggests that what they really need to learn is how to be a friend: “Love blooms more easily among people who understand intimacy and trust with close friends.” To the reader who wanted advice about her weakness for “getting involved with attached men,” Polly said, “if you had closer relationships with women, you’d never wriggle your way into unavailable-man pants” and “Do you know where the really strong, smart women are? They’re in the other room, talking contentedly together.”

Friendship can be especially important in the lives of people who are single, yet after the intensely social times of early adulthood, when potential friends are all around us in workplaces, classes, and dorms, finding friends can become challenging. I’ve probably read dozens, if not hundreds, of articles and blog posts on the topic. Nothing was as superb as Polly’s response, “Making Friends (Out of Nothing at All),” to the person who found herself “practically friendless.”

Most often, Polly is compassionate and loving and kind. Her answers are optimistic and life-affirming without seeming clichéd or phony. Sometimes they are laugh-out-loud hilarious. But every now and then, Polly lets someone have it. She does not suffer cheating fools gladly. And when a reader wrote about dating her best friend’s ex from a decade ago, without ever discussing the matter with her friend first, Polly was direct and brutal: “You didn’t call her to see how she felt BEFORE you went for it with your guy, thereby devaluing the friendship over your brand-new love match…You chose him over her. You are still choosing him over her.”

Reading How to Be a Person in the World was enriching and ennobling and enlightening and affirming – with one exception. I was so disappointed when Polly said, “Yes, it’s hard to balance a career and a family and love. In my experience, though, it’s far more difficult to live a solitary artist’s existence and come home to an empty apartment every night than it is to juggle the elements that make up a full life.” I didn’t mind that she encouraged her reader to go for a career and a romantic relationship and a family if that’s what she thought would work for that person. But it was a gut-punch to see how she characterized creative work and solo living.

Many people, myself included, love coming home to an empty place. We find it relaxing and rejuvenating. We are more creative and productive in a place of our own than we would ever be living with others. We are at our best with others after we have had some time and space to ourselves. “The elements that make up a full life” are not the same for everyone. For someone as wise as Heather Havrilesky to equate marriage and children and career with a “full life” seemed shockingly out of character.

With that one exception, though, I loved How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life. I’ve been trying to think about whether there are people who would have no interest in this book. Maybe people who are not psychologically-minded, who don’t like to think deeply about themselves or about life. For the rest of us, How to Be a Person in the World is a book to be treasured.

How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life
Heather Havrilesky
Anchor Books
June 2017
Paperback, 258 pages

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