Possible Side Effects

Augusten Burroughs

Why I looked at this book

In The People's Economics I discuss the economic concept of utility, and how it relates to happiness, and indeed whether happiness is all it's cracked up to be. So when I saw this Oatmeal comic I decided I needed to investigate further. This led me to the works of Augusten Burroughs. In particular to Running with scissors, but when I went to the library to look for that, I found Possible Side Effects instead.

I'd note though that the blurb for this book says it is approved for consumption by those seeking pleasure, escape, amusement, enlightenment, or general distraction., which looks like for those pursuing happiness. This seems to contradict the trail that led me to this book. Maybe this contradiction will be resolved when I read it.

First impressions

From reading the sample the book promises to be entertaining. The first two chapters are about losing a tooth at 8 years old (and a dreadful fear of the tooth fairy) and a nose bleed. I'm not sure whether the title implies a general medical theme for the book, I'll have to see.

Of course from a short sample it's impossible to tell whether it contributes anything to understanding the philosophy of happiness, but I can certainly tell that it worth continuing to read the book.

Main review

I don't think that the blurb on the back cover one of this book is meant to be taken seriously, but I'd note that it says that less than 1% of readers reported narcolepsy. I have to report that although with some books I find myself dozing off after a few pages, that wasn't a problem here. I felt, however, that I couldn't read too much as once as I found myself getting too 'weirded out'. For instance the young Augustus wanted a puppy, and threatened to kill himself if he didn't get one. No puppy was forthcoming so he simulates suicide, with tomato sauce everywhere (after which he got the puppy). You can't read too many stories like that at a time. I'd note that although the book doesn't have a medical theme throughout, quite a few of the chapters are about either health issues or puppies (or both)

But the reason I read this book was to see whether it expanded on Matthew Inman's Oatmeal comic and it's ideas about unhappiness. I know that the basis `Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it.' isn't necessarily the best way to analyse a book, but I came to this book to see what it said about happiness, so that's what I'll look at here. Now Inman says that if you work for 12 hours at a time on something, it's not because it makes you 'happy', but because it is fulfilling. But this seems to be describing 'flow', a state that many people would aim for. I hoped that this book would provide more insights into happiness vs fulfilment. Burroughs seems to say that life throws stuff at you, and you have to make the best of it. This, however, seems to be to be the British 'Stiff Upper Lip' principle, and I'm not sure that is supposed to be the message we get, although it may be trying to get away from the American attempt to be ultra-positive about everything.

It's tempting to see a 'before and after' message in some of what Burroughs writes. Left to himself he would stay at home and be lazy, but sometimes he is persuaded to go off on holiday, and realises he needed it. After he is made to do vigorous exercise as part of a health checkup,he realises he feels strangely energised and healthy. And at when he's at the depth of depression he finds that writing helps him to feel better. But I don't think that 'before and after' is the message we're supposed to take away either.

In summary, I don't think I should have been looking for a moral to this book, but I'll probably go on looking in Burrough's other books - they certainly promise to be an entertaining (if somewhat weird) experience.
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In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren, predicting an age of leisure in a couple of generations. Why aren't we there yet? That's just one of the questions asked in
The People's Economics