While I tend to read mostly fantasy and YA fiction for pleasure, I also occasionally indulge in the travel, food and history non-fiction genres. You wouldn’t know it from looking at the list of books I’ve mentioned on this blog, though. So to even the scales, I picked up a book that’s been sitting in my to-read pile for almost 6 months – The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. And what better time than when actually traveling? This is the one book I read all the way through on my mother-daughter cross-country journey – the rest of the time I was occupied with driving or observing the gorgeous scenery passing by my window at 75 miles per hour (or not-finishing other books).
Part foreign affairs discourse, part humor, and part twisted self-help guide, The Geography of Bliss takes the reader from America to Iceland to India in search of happiness, or, in the crabby author's case, moments of "un-unhappiness." The book uses a beguiling mixture of travel, psychology, science and humor to investigate not what happiness is, but where it is. Are people in Switzerland happier because it is the most democratic country in the world? Do citizens of Qatar, awash in petrodollars, find joy in all that cash? Is the King of Bhutan a visionary for his initiative to calculate Gross National Happiness? Why is Asheville, North Carolina so damn happy? With engaging wit and surprising insights, Eric Weiner answers those questions and many others, offering travelers of all moods some interesting new ideas for sunnier destinations and dispositions.
What I liked: Weiner connects his experiences of travel in each country with real, solid people. They are natives, they are fellow travelers, they have ‘gone native,’ etc. Without exception, the reader gets a chance to experience a country through 1) Weiner’s writing, but also 2) his companions’ eyes. It makes for a grounded and varied experience. Each chapter is tinged by the flavor of accents, humor, and the personalities of the subjects in every distinct culture and country.
What I didn’t like: This is just me being picky and persnickety (probably), but as I read, I couldn’t help but think that this book’s target audience are middle-aged, divorced and un-happy Americans. Why? Weiner’s travel itinerary is prohibitively expensive for anyone without some degree of wealth (though he never explicitly encourages travel to any of the countries he visits). When he writes about unhappiness, divorce is repeatedly mentioned as a cause or a motivation for those feelings. That Americans aren’t as happy as they should be, given all of the variables, seems to be an underlying theme of the book. And there you have it.
Academic moment: ‘pop’ sociology (the ‘science’ in the above book description) + journalism = makes me squirm.
Saving grace: Humor. While not wildly hilarious, Weiner made me smile or laugh aloud at many points. I read the funny bits to my mom.
Overall, I recommend this text to travel book aficionados and self-help book addicts. Or if you’re in a good mood and want it knocked out of you (okay, so the last one is a lie. Or mostly one.). Read. Enjoy!