Reviewed in this essay:
It is November in Toronto. I could use fifteen or so reasons to live right now.
Ray Robertson implies a big answer with his new title. Having just completed a draft of a novel and experiencing an OCD-induced depression, Robertson asked himself, “why not die?” Not being self-absorbed enough to think that writing a chronicle of his illness would be interesting or unique, Robertson sat down and thought. The result is this series of essays on the things that keep us alive.
He works his way through the classic motivators (Love, Home, Work) and not so classic (Solitude, Praise and Duty) that have given humans reasons to go on, blending his own experiences with the thoughts of other writers and philosophers. In the essay “Intoxication”, he canvasses the thoughts of Bertrand Russell, William Burroughs and others, and yet, having set out a diverse range of thought on the topic, does not make a call on whether drink and drugs can be a true reason to live, or a cop-out toward slow death. He is not giving the easy answers because he is telling us he is not the authority. Despite his title, he warns us upfront that he is speaking to us as if to himself, one patient to another, not as a physician.
The collection meanders over the topography of Roberston’s mind, which is vast and irregular. The series of essays are not pulled together by a conclusion. However, the chapter on meaning seems the most critical — to happiness, to enjoyment, to a reason to live — and the most natural concluding piece, but it is positioned equally with the other topical chapters. I confess that I have a bit of a reductionist approach to things and I hoped that he would tell me that the meaning of life was something specific, like being able to do headstands, or a prime number.
The essays are deeply personal, as reflected by what he leaves out as well as by what he includes. Art, drugs, love and work can all give meaning to life, depending on individual values, but sitting around thinking about them might not. The search for a reason to keep breathing left me thinking that perhaps, like the under-examined life, the over-examined life may also not be worth living — unless of course, that analysis is meaningful to you.
Read the TRB’s Q&A with Ray Robertson here.