Book Review: “The Antidote” by Oliver Burkeman
Reviewing self-help books is a tricky business. How do you go about such an exercise in futility? After all, what works for me might not work for you, and vice-versa. Self-help guides are intensely personal and the results aren’t meant to be shared, so to speak. Thus, if you’re a reviewer and you’re given a self-help book to review, what do you do with it? I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. This is what makes reviewing Oliver Burkeman’s recently published trade paperback book The Antidote so hard to do. While this book is not a straight-up self-help guide in the traditional sense in that it gives you exercises to work through, the tome is designed to make you think — especially if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like self-help books. Burkeman’s point is to show that negative thinking can lead you closer to happiness — which is a controversial thesis to be sure, and one that not everyone might agree with.
I will say one thing to be charitable before doing a deeper dive into this book’s contents: Oliver Burkeman is a very intelligent man. It’s clear from the prose and the amount of research (personal and secondary) he put into this work that he has thought very deeply about some very knotty material. I would say that The Antidote is a mix of philosophy and psychology, which are two subjects that I feel are a bit beyond my scope. For that reason, I can feel qualified to say that Burkeman has wrestled with his subject matter. To be honest, there’s so much wrestling here (no pun intended), I put this book down for a bit and was unsure if I’d finish it not only because of the negativity but because I thought that aspects of the book were beyond me. However, that is not to say that the book isn’t accessible or, as one reviewer has put it, “entertaining.” When Burkeman riffs on popular culture, the book can, indeed, be very approachable. However, if you are like me in any way, prepare to let your mind wander a bit. This is the type of book where you might have to go back and re-read sections just to parse the density of the subject matter. This is not a criticism. Those who are academically inclined and who scoff at the idea of self-help books are going to find a lot to enjoy here.
But you’re probably asking: what is this book about? I think if I could summarize, it would be to say that The Antidote is a volume all about embracing the negativity of life and finding ways to be meaningfully happy despite how down you are feeling. This leads to my next comment. Another reason for putting this book down temporarily is because I found the read to be painful at times — Burkeman knows how to mash his readers’ buttons. There’s a section of the book about climbing mountains, including Mount Everest, and this came at a time in my life when I felt that I was climbing a mountain of my own in the most metaphorical sense of the word. That chapter felt like a bit of a tough slog for me. However, there are some interesting insights to be had: early on in the book, Burkeman shows that people who are inclined to want to think positive thoughts all the time just wind up feeling inadequate. Misery follows. Its ideas such as this that are peppered throughout this book are exactly what makes it so fascinating. So as much as this is a challenging read, there are important things that can be gleaned from The Antidote. In many ways, this is a crucial book of original thought.
However, and I don’t want to sound cruel here, surely there must be some levity. While I fundamentally agree with a lot of Burkeman’s findings and found his prose to be — at times — quite engaging (when I wasn’t thinking of my grocery list!), total negativity can’t be good for an individual, either. Might there be space to suggest that a person needs to find some kind of balance between feeling bad about themselves for them to conversely feel good? Could it also be said that they need to also feel good about themselves to be in a position to examine their mistakes? I thought the book did tackle this idea, but it did so somewhat superficially. I may be wrong about that — after all, I did drift from time to time to wondering about this awesome chickpea stew I’d like to make for myself while reading this. However, I suppose it would be fair to say that the ideas are packed into a meaty book that runs only 200 pages or so. It’s a bit dense, as a result. Still, there might be something here for more academically inclined readers — or perhaps those who have an armchair interest in philosophizing.
At the end of the day, is The Antidote a good book? I think so, even if it is written with far more brains than heart — which may or may not be a bad thing depending on the reader’s disposition. While I am not sure what to entirely think of it, I did enjoy the chance to read it — if I can be allowed such a personal admission in a review of this nature. The Antidote is not the easiest read for the reasons already mentioned, but at least it looks at issues relating to personal self-esteem and ultimately our mortality from a different lens. You may conclude that Burkeman was very brave for going out on a limb and examining such subject matter. I had to wonder what inspired him to do so. Regardless, The Antidote is one of those books for people who want their worldview to be challenged. If that sounds like you, you should relish the fact that the book is now more readily available in paperback form and should check it out — not from the library, but from your favourite independent bookstore. It’s interesting, to say the least.
Oliver Burkeman’s The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking was published by Picador on August 9, 2022.
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