On Balance by Adam Phillips

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On Balance by Adam Phillips

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Sue Flipping
Reviewed by Sue Flipping
Summary: A series of essays and talks that challenge the way we think about things we thought we did not need to think about.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: July 2010
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241143889

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Essential for a tightrope walker, prized as an intellectual objective, balance is generally considered something to which we can aspire. We praise someone who makes a balanced decision, we envy people who have a 'good work/life balance' we offer an opinion 'on balance' to demonstrate that we have considered various arguments and options.

But to start this collection of essays and talks, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips considers why balance is so prized, what the alternative might be and invites us to question whether balance is, intrinsically, a good thing.

The first part of On Balance consists of a series of five talks on excess, recorded for the BBC. As you would expect from Phillips, they bring together ideas and thoughts that you have not necessarily connected before. Could it be, for example, that the anorexic is, in truth, a greedy person who fears that their greed cannot be satisfied so tries to wean themselves off the thing they are greedy for?

The rest of the book brings together talks, lectures and published writings from a number of sources that move beyond the idea of balance and into the areas where Phillips can challenge more preconceived notions. Success, says Phillips, is not always a good thing; it can make us as ill as failure. Delinquency is not as much about breaking rules as about trying to find rules. And a happy childhood is not good preparation for your life as an adult.

He gives us readings of fairy tales, notably Jack and the Beanstalk and Cinderella that mean you will never watch a pantomime in the same light (although it will explain all the smutty innuendoes). Freud is a meaningful prophet for Phillips' ideas.

As well as being a psychoanalyst, Adam Phillips is a visiting Professor in the English Department at the University of York and his musings include reflections on Auden, on Shakespeare and on Sebald.

Adam Phillips is renowned for his ability to turn round ideas that we take for granted and ask us to question them. Occasionally, he is repetitive, as though he is still trying to clarify some of his own thoughts. Occasionally, his aphorisms seem a little too trite 'The one thing the family can't prepare you for is life outside the family' is one; 'No other body is available but the body we happen to be' another. Occasionally it is difficult to follow his argument as he leaps and bounds from one idea to the next. Never, however, is there a moment of dullness.

On the cover of the book is a picture of two skeletons. A cursory glance tells us they are human; closer investigation (and a peek at the inside credits) tells us that one was a human male and the other a gorilla. What the publishers intended by the choice I do not know. But it is a good metaphor for the contents of the book itself; ideas that we think we recognise are, on closer examination, revealed to be quite different to what we expected. Some of them are perfectly balanced; others are still struggling to walk upright. All of them have potential.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading:

On Kindness by Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor
The Secrets of Happiness by Richard Schoch
Juggle! Rethink Work, Reclaim your Life by Ian Sanders

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Buy On Balance by Adam Phillips at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On Balance by Adam Phillips at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy On Balance by Adam Phillips at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On Balance by Adam Phillips at Amazon.com.


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