Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse

Thinking About It DMAnother slightly out-of-the-ordinary title for me: Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse by David Mitchell.

The book is a collection of columns he has written for the Observer over the past five years. Normally, I’d be a bit cynical about already-published material being given a fancy cover and marketed as something new but in certain cases, I’m willing to put aside my reservations. From what I’ve seen of David Mitchell, I like him. Peep Show and That Mitchell and Webb Look are both witty, and I find him absolutely hilarious on Would I Lie To You? He’s legendary for his rants, but I wasn’t familiar with his columns, so I was pleased to see that they were very much in keeping with what I’d have expected from him. He has a great command over the English language.

In the columns, he writes about everything from his thoughts on the monarchy to celebrity chefs, and everything in between. On the whole, it was enjoyable to read but with a couple of caveats. The first being that in a collection of columns like this, there’ll always be some that work better than others. It’s also not a book that I’d recommend reading from start to finish in one go, as it does get a little bit ‘samey’ after a while.

However, that said, I found myself highlighting an insane number of passages throughout that either made me laugh out loud or go ‘yes! Someone else thinks that too!’ I’ve picked my favourite out to quote here, as they’ll probably give a better idea of what I liked about this book than anything else I could go on about:

[On Downton Abbey]
I’ve seen every single episode. I think it might be my favourite programme. I enjoy it enormously. I also think it’s shit.

[On branding]
It’s like when you start worrying that blue looks yellow to everyone else and that when they say ‘blue’, they’re thinking of yellow, and vice versa. How can you check?

[On the rules of grammar]
If those who misuse the apostrophe are not adversely judged for it, then why did I waste so much time listening in class?

[On television]
There’s no other David Mitchell walking around, who, having eschewed TV, has an imagination unstunted by assiduously following the plot of Dynasty. Unless it’s that pesky novelist.

[Still on the subject of television]
Regurgitate half-remembered facts from your A-level syllabus on a panel show, I’ve found, and you’ll get lumped in with the learned.

[On the popularity of Harry Potter]
Others’ loss of perspective about its merits made me lose my own. Maybe I was trying to lower the average human opinion of the oeuvre close to what it deserves by artificially forcing mine well below that level.

[On politicians]
The intense joy because his opponents have messed up, and so he’s closer to his aims without having to do anything good, made me want to puke.

Reading through the highlighted passages to pick out these quotes actually reminded me of what I liked most about this book. The common theme in all of these columns is that David Mitchell is really taking the time to question some of our most bizarre social conventions. It’s refreshing.

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Spark!

While I still have some longlisted titles left to read, I’m suffering from a bit of literary fiction fatigue… so I’m taking some time to read a few books that are completely different before going back to the four I have left to read.

Spark!First up is Spark! by Norah Casey. It’s a mixture of autobiography and self-help. This is a slightly unusual choice for me – most of the books I read tend to be fiction. And while I often buy self-help books, it’s rare that I finish them. (Or sometimes, even make it past the second chapter.)

Spark! was different. Norah Casey is somebody that I admire – she’s smart, capable and a successful businesswoman and while I don’t really go in for role-models, if I did have them, she’d be on the list.

This book opens with her own story. Three years ago, her husband passed away from cancer. She writes about this with painful honesty. In the months afterwards, with her imagined future gone, she decides to take stock of her own life. What she decides is to start really living – so she starts to challenge herself by doing things that are out of her comfort zone. In doing so, she regains her own zest for life.

The second part of the book imparts what’s she learned over the past few years. This is quite a jumbled-up section with a lot of information in it – it advises you to analyse your life to date, and goes through the typical stages you can expect as you age. It looks at ten specific things you can do – from eating well and exercising, to trying new activities and the power of smiling. There’s some chapters on serotonin and dopamine, and the powerful effect these can have. There’s also a wonderful section where she basically sticks her finger up at the mindfulness craze. While I’m undecided on mindfulness – certainly it works for some people – I do have to admire how forthright she is in dismissing it.

The final section contains profiles and interviews with ten people she believes are inspiring, including astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, actress Fionnuala Flanagan and singer/actor David Essex.

Overall, I enjoyed reading this and it gave me a bit of a push. While I feel that the middle section tried to be too many things, and as a result, lacked coherency and focus, for the most part the advice given was practical and made sense – although, I do believe I may be a bit younger than the target audience she had in mind.

She encourages you to analyse where you are and how you got here – not judge, just analyse. She asks you to look back at what you used to dream about and then look at why it never happened. The message she’s giving is essentially, ‘well, why not do it now?’ It’s a call to action – a call to live, really – and it’s a message that’s worth spreading. We only have one life – why waste it?