The 2008 crash remains the great turning-point, the before-and-after moment. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, a book like Eat, Pray, Love being published today. Elizabeth Gilbert’s self-help-memoir, which was published exactly 15 years ago, followed the author through an early-to-midlife crisis in which she spends four months in Italy eating carbs and sightseeing, four months at an Indian ashram learning the secrets of spiritual life, and the rest of the year in Indonesia resisting, then succumbing to, a heady romance with a Brazilian businessman. 12 million book sales and a Julia Roberts movie adaptation followed.
It isn’t just the ease of international travel that makes Eat, Pray, Love seem like a document from another era. It’s also the book’s unselfconsciousness about economic inequality — about the fact that you can only have this sort of adventure when you happen to have received, say, a $200,000 book advance. And if the book was “a voyage of self-discovery” (a phrase Gilbert used with hardly a trace of irony), it was also an ode to consumerism: the dream held out by travel agents — sunshine, hedonism and enlightenment rolled into one — has rarely found a more persuasive salesperson.
And yet for all that, Eat, Pray, Love possessed a kind of absurd magnificence. At the start of the book, Gilbert’s marriage is in crisis, and as she collapses onto her bathroom floor at 3am, sobbing uncontrollably, something wholly unexpected happens, like “one of those crazy astronomical super-events when a planet flips over in outer space for no reason whatsoever, and its molten core shifts”. For the first time in her life, she finds herself crying out, in fear, in desperation, in hope, to the creator of the universe.
What happens next isn’t quite Augustine’s Confessions. But there was an appealing sense in Eat, Pray, Love — a sense never quite lost even as Gilbert moved relentlessly onwards through the world’s finest gelaterias, yoga studios and beach bars, distributing her publisher’s vast wads of cash — that life itself is a stupendous gift. You have a body, so feast! You have a soul, so how could you possibly spend less than four months on trying to unlock the mystery of prayer? You have the capacity to love, so why not travel halfway around the planet for it?
Fiffeen years on, self-help has become a far more sensible affair. Or rather, it has been supplanted by “self-care” — those miniature, fine-tuned adjustments to soothe you through a demanding day. Instead of going on a voyage of self-discovery, people download mindfulness apps called things like “Ten Per Cent Happier”. Whereas Elizabeth Gilbert searched for a God who is “an experience of supreme love”, we have Marie Kondo telling us to throw more stuff away and Sarah Knight offering The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F***. The new mood was anticipated by the ironic subtitle of Oliver Burkeman’s 2011 post-self-help book Help!: How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done.
To the generation which has acquired its disposable income since Eat, Pray, Love appeared, Gilbert’s scheme must appear pretty dubious. Eat? No thanks — I’m fine with this kale juice. Love? Not likely: according to a recent survey, 20- and 30-something travellers “would rather improve mental health (30%), learn a new skill (29%) or get fit (24%) than find love (12%).” Pray? Well, in the next few weeks a book will be published which is in certain ways the opposite of Eat, Pray, Love.
True, Sarah Sands’ The Interior Silence: 10 Lessons from Monastic Life would also cost a fair amount to emulate: flights to Japan aren’t cheap, and nor, one imagines, is a stay at a Buddhist monastery in Koyasan. For Sands’ other nine lessons she visits religious houses of various, mostly Christian traditions in Italy, Spain, Egypt, Bhutan, France, Germany and Greece — and, as lockdown restrictions start to bite during the writing of the book, in Britain too. Even so, Interior Silence is less an extravagant journey in pursuit of sublime knowledge, more an accumulation of useful habits to help stay afloat.
From the harmony of the Japanese monastery, Sands concludes that tidying her handbag could be the key to a more ordered life. At the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque, she discovers that giving up caffeine and alcohol “brings a quietness of mind”. Sands’ monks and nuns teach her to ignore the news cycle, to practise patience, to enjoy simplicity. These are the small, familiar steps of self-care — and it’s not entirely clear how much Sands’ newfound tranquillity is the result of drinking deep from the wells of ancient knowledge, and how much it is just the usual effect of a really nice holiday.
Nevertheless, the book is gripping, both because of Sands’ witty, sometimes poignant prose, and as a fable of our times. In the 21st-century meritocracy, whose greatest prize is to have a fun, well-paid job which impresses strangers at social events, Sands is unquestionably one of the winners. As editor of the Evening Standard from 2012-17, she spends “every evening in theatres or restaurants or at parties” — some of them at the proprietor Evgeny Lebedev’s Umbrian castle:
It was my job as editor of the London newspaper to deliver Boris Johnson to these weekends. The preparations were elaborate, and our welcoming party would breathe more deeply when our cars finally accelerated up the avenue of cypresses, taking in the jasmine air, and preparing for a weekend of medieval splendour: feasting, dancing, boar hunting. I have a memory of a dishevelled Johnson chasing Evgeny’s wolf, also named Boris, because it had eaten his computer dongle.
Then, as editor of the Today Programme, Sands covers the edge-of-your-seat drama of post-Brexit politics, rising at 4.30 to “a frenzy of news wires and Twitter”, only returning home in the evening to catch up on emails. And how does it feel, this thrilling life at the centre of glamorous invite-only occasions and world-shaking political stories? Terrible, of course. The news becomes a numbing addiction. Sands’ mind fills with “noise, chaos and anxiety” to the point where she struggles to sleep. And then, among monks and nuns, she realises that with their lack of ambition, their small needs and simple lives, these people seem to have found happiness.
At moments, Sands hints that monastic living may have more to teach us than just some novel approaches to self-care. The book circles around the possibility of divine revelation, without quite deciding what to make of it. Sands quotes a phrase from St Thomas Aquinas, “the light of faith”, but doesn’t mention that he tends to use it in a fairly blunt way: by that light, he comments, “the human mind is directed to assent to such things as are becoming to a right faith, and not to assent to others.” Sands adopts a very different tone, as she looks out onto the old convent wall at the bottom of her garden:
I think of what St Thomas once called “the light of faith”. If there is a divine truth beyond knowledge and reason, then my wall, bright behind the silhouette of the yew tree and the big dark sky, seems a testament to it.
Like Eat, Pray, Love, Interior Silence is haunted by the possibility of finding God. But here the possibility fades away into a beautiful image, just as in the earlier book it dissolved into a consumerist paradise. Perhaps there are some questions which the self-help genre just isn’t designed to answer.