Jia Tolentino’s Latest Book Will Change Your Life

The question, What do you want to be when you grow up, often provokes feelings of existential dread as I ponder what, exactly, I am passionate about, and how, exactly, I will eventually make a living. In truth, I would really just like to be an explorer for the rest of my life, utilizing writing as an excuse to learn and travel to my heart’s content. A journalist, after all, can essentially be considered a professional learner, a student of the world, a curious observer. This is what I would like to be when I grow up, and, to be more precise, I would like to be Jia Tolentino.

Jia Tolentino is a 31-year-old staff writer at The New Yorker, a publication to which I seem to have a severe addiction. She lives in Brooklyn, is incredibly kind and personable (I had the privilege of meeting her after an interview she conducted at Books are Magic), and recently came out with her must-read book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion.

Trick Mirror is a collection of essays that combine Tolentino’s personal experiences with her well-informed observations of current cultural and political phenomenons (sweetgreen, sexual assault on college campuses, marriage, barre, religion). Each essay is meticulously researched, but rather than making incontrovertible claims, Tolentino explores her thoughts and beliefs with humble curiosity, often questioning her own assumptions, acknowledging that what she perceives may very well be incorrect or more nuanced than she realized. This intellectual humility–the willingness to admit that one is prone to mistakes–renders Trick Mirror all the more believable and influential.

This book is unapologetically a feminist text, and, at times, I found myself disagreeing with the strength of some of the author’s statements. But this, I believe, was merely a result of hearing and reading the claims of people who lack the aptitude for nuance, unfairly categorizing all men as predators and labeling women as the superior sex. Of course, such strong views are held by a comically small percentage of feminists. Unfortunately though, these feminists tend to be louder than the rest, resulting in an incomplete picture of what feminism truly is: “the advocacy of women’s rights on the basis of the equality of the sexes” (according to google). Hearing these women misrepresent feminism has made me extra sensitive to the movement; I worry that the pendulum will swing too far in the opposite direction, so some of the pushback I experienced while reading Trick Mirror was not the result of Tolentino’s language or ideas but rather of a heightened sensitivity to issues of gender equality. Tolentino herself acknowledges that not all men are monsters and speaks fondly of her sweet, sensitive partner Andrew. She represents what feminism is actually about.

To fully grasp Trick Mirror‘s genius, though, it merits a second, and perhaps a third, read. I have only read it once, and possess the strong sense that I missed a lot. There are so many gems of wisdom and profound insights that to absorb it all, one must read it again. A single read will not provide the time nor attention required to understand the extent of Tolentino’s various deep dives. Indeed, after completing the book, I felt that I had only scratched the surface of the wisdom she so thoughtfully shared.

In truth, Trick Mirror is a treasure trove of profundity and wit and masterful storytelling, if slightly verbose at times. Tolentino’s keen self-awareness, capacity for asking compelling questions, and willingness to look back at the past with painstaking honesty render Trick Mirror refreshingly honest and incredibly powerful. I usually do not reread books because I want to check them off my list and move on to the next one, but in this case, I believe I have discovered the rare book to which I will continuously return, gaining several new and valuable insights every time.

Book Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl

It is difficult to even attempt to understand the experiences of the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. One can try to imagine the horrors of the gas chambers or the ready incineration of supposedly “weak” prisoners, but it is perhaps more difficult to ponder the daily routines at such camps–the habits of the prisoners and guards. In Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl provides much insight on the brutal nuances of the concentration camps which render them even more horrific than once believed. The long barefoot treks in the snow, the urine-soaked straw bunks, the sharp pang of constant hunger, and the lack of basic personal provisions are but a few of the more specific details which made the prisoners’ experience all the more nightmarish.

Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist, provides a highly detailed account of what life was truly like as a camp prisoner. Several of such accounts indeed exist today, but he retells his story through a psychological lens. By sharing the behaviors of the guards and prisoners, the physical conditions, and several anecdotes, Frankl analyzes human behavior and seeks to optimize human life by learning from such behavior.

Suffering is a central point of discussion in the book. Frankl asserts that one’s meaning can indeed be fulfilled in the presence of suffering, yet such fulfillment is certainly not contingent upon it. He states that if the source of the suffering can be removed, it is selfish and irrational not to remove it. However, if suffering is beyond one’s control, one can find peace amid the chaos and still proceed to live a meaningful life.

Most human beings wish to live a meaningful life. It is sometimes difficult, however, to find such meaning or to even define what meaning is. Frankl takes a far more reasonable approach to this profound question. Rather than asking what our meaning is in life, we must realize that life is asking us this very question. Therefore, we must discover life’s meaning for ourselves. Life need not divulge this to us, for we are the ones intended to discover it. Life consistently questions us. Instead of doubting it, we should learn to listen and answer back.

One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quotes is, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Frankl repeats this statement several times throughout his book. It is pleasantly simple and easy to understand, and yet it is something that humans constantly struggle with. In order to find the “why” that is unique to an individual, one must be willing to answer the questions life is asking us.

Man’s Search for Meaning certainly inspired me to live life differently with more love, gratitude, and enjoyment of each moment. If every person could attempt to live like Frankl, the world would instantly improve in every respect. Please be ready to answer life’s questions, remember that necessary suffering does not prevent one from finding meaning, that having a “why” makes life far more endurable, and that love transcends physical existence and is indeed just as, if not more, powerful than death.