A practicing psychoanalyst and literary theory professor at University of London considers what wisdom may be gleaned from books—from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland to Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go—about navigating the vicissitudes of being human.
... a readable, thought-provoking, and, yes, helpful treatise on how to navigate life with the aid of good literature ... Entertainingly, Cohen opens each section with mock interview notes, as if the character we’re about to parse had just completed an analytic session ... The life lessons he extracts get more complex as the issues themselves grow more complex, and he groups characters in sometimes surprising ways to make his points ... The books assembled here aren’t guides, and Cohen’s engaging, sometimes moving volume isn’t self-help. And you wouldn’t need them if they were. If you’re curious enough to read at all, he concludes, you already have what it takes to live. As I’ve passed through the life stages he examines—and see the final one coming into ever-sharper focus—I, too, have looked for lessons in literature along the way. Josh Cohen offers a persuasive defense that it’s been time well spent.
Cohen’s refreshingly simple approach differs from much psychoanalytic criticism ... Treating characters like real people is perhaps the biggest taboo in literary studies; Cohen’s book quietly busts it ... How to Live. What to Do might seem an oddly dogmatic title. But Cohen is taking his cue from a poem by Wallace Stevens, which 'announces a didactic agenda' only to 'withhold' it. By the end of this wonderful book, we have learned to read its title not as a prescription but as a set of questions. Neither novels nor psychoanalysis promise to finally answer those questions. Instead, they invite us to look and listen—and to live in a way that lets us keep asking.
... illuminating ... absorbing ... Cohen’s analysis is uniformly insightful and well complemented by his case studies, but some readers may balk that his selections, with a few exceptions, represent primarily White American or British authors, their stories confined almost exclusively to a straight cultural perspective. A broader inclusion of racial and ethnic fictional examples would have enhanced this exercise, but Cohen still provides a compelling case for how and why reading fiction can enlighten our human experiences ... An engrossing consideration of how reading fiction can lay a pathway for emotional and intellectual enrichment.