Reading How Should A Person Be?


After I started this blog a few months ago, I posted a couple of book reviews. Then I stopped posting book reviews because I felt that no one was reading them. And now I feel like, who cares? I’m going to start posting them again because I like to talk about what I’m reading. And if I can’t have a dialogue with other people about that, then I might as well have a dialogue with myself. I’m pretty sure I’m thinking like this because I read Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, though it could also be the years of psychotherapy.

When I first heard about this book, I didn’t want to read it. I definitely didn’t want to like it. The entire premise of writing “a novel from life” sounded pretentious. However, I changed my mind about that for a few reasons. Firstly, my friend Rachel had raved about the book and Sheila Heti in general. The book was recommended to me on Amazon during this time and it was only then I decided to buy it, along with like ten other books because I recently got Amazon Prime for no reason other than I wanted my brother’s Christmas present to arrive on time. But really, I had started writing a lot more around that time while simultaneously going through what I’ll call a philosophical phase, so the book sounded much more appealing to me while I was in that state of mind.

Anyway, I started reading it almost immediately after I’d finished Jessica Mitford’s Hons and Rebels, which is a very engaging memoir that I thought lacked any real emotional honesty. Though how much emotional honesty can one expect to get from an upper class British woman writing in the middle of the twentieth century? Anyway, it left me feeling wanting. Within the first few pages of How Should A Person Be? I think I found what I wanted, which was a lot of weirdly beautiful and honest and reassuringly self-indulgent introspection.

When confronted with the question of the title, the narrator, who we come to assume is the fictional Sheila Heti, says, “For years and years I asked it of everyone I met. I was always watching to see what they were going to do in any situation, so I could do it too. I was always listening to their answers, so if I liked them, I could make them my answers too…You can admire anyone for being themselves. It’s hard not to, when everyone’s so good at it.” Immediately, I realized that she’s just like us, but more thoughtful and forthcoming regarding her insecurities.

Now, every review I read about this book mentioned that one of Heti’s inspirations for this novel was watching the Greatest Scripted Reality Show of Our Time, The Hills. Knowing this, I could see the parallels. Like The Hills, the book has almost no plot, though there were times when I expected I would discover a plot, especially at the beginning. But as I read further, I realized that Heti was, in one way or another, scripting her life and editing it for the audience’s enjoyment. (How long should it have taken me to realize that, when the book’s subtitle is ‘A Novel From Life’?)

We’re all deeply interested in our own lives, which are never as interesting to anyone else. I’m apparently so deeply interested in my own life that I, like many others before me, decided to write about it on the internet. We pull out the best parts and dramatize them for others all the time. We’re the stars of our own stories, though that version of ourselves is neither who we really are, nor who we appear to be to others.

Sheila Heti is the star of her own story – or novel or play or email or whatever form this story takes as it’s told – which is why, before I picked up this book, I thought I might find it contrived or overly cute or self-indulgent. But I found something much deeper in How Should A Person Be?  than I could have found in any recent reality TV show. (Ha, duh. I know.) Her explorations of modern female friendship, the creation of art, and the way the past and the future influence our present struck me in such a way that I’ve been thinking about them since I finished the book a few weeks ago.

I’ll end this here as I didn’t want to write a full-on essay about this book. (Essays require too much thought/planning/finding of quotes, and I haven’t even attempted writing anything academic in years.) I just wanted to talk about how much I liked it and want others to read it! So, if you’ve read it or read it in the future, please please tell me because obviously I’m dying to talk about it.

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