In February I received an email from Penguin Random House asking if I wanted to review 12 Rules For Life. I’d never heard of Jordan Peterson or his book, so I said yes. It arrived a couple of weeks later and I tried to read it.
I gave up about halfway through.
The book began with a forward that explained a bit about the author and his work. A small alarm bell rang at the back of my mind when Norman Doidge described where he’d met Peterson: at a party “devoted to the pleasure of saying what you really thought and hearing others do the same, in an uninhibited give-and-take.”
Now in theory this is an idea I wholeheartedly embrace – in fact it’s something I’d quite like to start hosting myself – except that when middle-aged suit-wearing white men talk about being allowed to say what they really think, it quite often involves an -ism I can’t get behind. Racism or sexism rather than Kierkegaardianism, for example.
But I know #notallmen, so I kept reading. Maybe Peterson’s not an arsehole, maybe he’s an intellectual with a genuine interest in philosophy and sociology and hearing other people’s views. Doidge went on to describe Peterson as having “the enthusiasm of a kid who had just learned something new and had to share it.” He also said that Peterson tended to avoid small talk and instead would talk about the deeper questions of life with anyone who happened to be around. “There was something freeing” he continued “about being with a person so learned yet speaking in such an unedited way.”
At this point I thought, hmmm. Maybe I’d like him after all. When I invited strangers from the internet over to my house as part of Wait But Hi, that was one of my favourite things: there was no small talk, and we spoke about all different topics. Some I already knew a lot about, some I knew next to nothing about; all of them were interesting. So I was tentatively hopeful as I moved into the loftily named ‘Overture’ and then into the first chapter.
Which was where it all started to unravel. I stuck with it for a surprisingly long time, considering that I normally read a book a day and this one was stretching over several; after a while I realised it wasn’t that I was much busier than usual, it was just that I was procrastinating picking it up, and then deciding to put it down again shortly after I’d opened it because it just… wasn’t very good.
For one thing, I wasn’t a fan of the writing style. You know when you’re with a group of people ranging in age from, say, 18-60, and most of you are just having a normal conversation about something vaguely interesting, but then there’s that guy. That guy is probably in his mid-late 50s, and he’s desperate to be down with the kids. So he uses emoji and slang, and he talks about grown-up subjects in a way he thinks will appeal to the youths, but he ends up sounding less intelligent and more weird than he probably is?
Jordan Peterson is that guy in writing. He likes to use Emphatic Capitals. As evidenced by the archives of this blog, I do too, but there’s a limit. There’s also a difference between writing online, for an informal audience who might want to see smiley faces and bits highlighted in italics and Big Capitals For Emphasis Sometimes, and writing for an audience who’ve bought your book from a bookshop so are looking for something a bit more formal and, well, booky.
There were bits I agreed with. You’d think this might make me recommend the book despite the writing style, but the bits I agreed with were all things I’d file under “common sense”, e.g.
We must sort and organise [our] primordial desires, because the world is a complex and obstinately real place. We can’t just get the one particular thing we especially want just now, along with everything else we usually want, because our desires can produce conflict with our other desires, as well as with other people, and with the world.
In other words, you can’t have everything you want all the time. Sometimes you have to sacrifice stuff so you can have some other stuff you want more.
If you don’t already know this by the time you’re a full-grown adult, I don’t think reading Peterson’s book is going to help you. I’ve met people who don’t seem to understand that they can’t have everything, and I can confirm that telling them they can’t have everything has precisely no effect.
As the chapters wore on, the book descended from stating the bleeding obvious to lots of enthusiastic preaching of Bible messages. Having grown up in a Christian cult, I’m wary of messages that seem to take the Bible too literally, especially the bits about some people not having the same rights as others. Despite my upbringing, I still think the Bible has some good bits too, though, so I kept reading just in case.
But, nahh. 12 Rules For Life is essentially the manifesto of a right-wing Christian who’s decided it’s high time the mainstream had a self-help book based on the Bible. The bits of it that make sensible points are so self-evident that you’ll know them already, and if you don’t then reading this book won’t help you; the bits that aren’t so sensible are just Peterson talking about how great he is and how society’s progressing in the wrong direction with all these rights for women and children. Children, for God’s sake. Whoever heard of rights for children?!
In summary: if you’re a conservative Christian without any academic credentials, you’ll probably enjoy this book. If you’ve moved with the times and believe other humans have the same rights as you, then you’ll probably disagree with a lot of what Peterson says. This is the best summary I’ve read of it so far.
12 Rules For Life was published by Penguin Random House on the 23rd of January 2018.
I received a free copy of an advance proof from the publisher in exchange for a review. In reality it’s difficult to tell if this affected my view of it, but I think it’s fair to say that if the publisher had been controlling what I was going to write, they probably wouldn’t have asked for this.