By: Vanessa Purdy
Ray Robertson’s mustache
The title of Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, explains Ray Robertson’s collection of personal essays, as well as the reason to read it. Why not take the time to tackle a tough question: Why live?
Robertson, who mostly writes fiction, tackled Why Not with a sense of urgency. “I stopped halfway through the novel I was working on to write this book, I’ve never done that before”, he explained. The book is not as unusual in its largely philosophical content, as it is in the remarkable circumstances surrounding its creation. Robertson was inspired by his experiences with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and depression, putting both on the table in the prelude and thus lending his voice to people often shamed into silence.
Robertson was one of five nominees for this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction; a coveted $60,000 reward. But pretentious he certainly is not. In explaining how, when one has depression, it’s difficult to live in and appreciate the moment, Robertson paints a picture—with vomit. “When you’re sick, all you can think is, I wish I wasn’t sick. But you never think to yourself, when you’re well, I’m so glad I’m not throwing up right now.” The importance of slowing down and taking stock of life is a lot of what Why Not is about. “I wanted to stop and say, it’s good to have [the fifteen reasons]…we get so used to things; that’s why true art is pulling away all the crap and seeing things.”
At most, you’ll find a kindred spirit in this book; at least, you’ll add a few shiny new quotations to your collection. A University of Toronto grad (and a former editor-in-chief of the newspaper), Robertson read his share of Kant and Hume. He found a large part of the heavily analytic philosophy program to be “not enough about what life is really about”, and turned his talents to writing. It came to be that “novels were a sort of philosophy co-op program” for him.
Why Not is, in a sense, a practical application of philosophy, but that’s not to say he made any sacrifices stylistically. Straightforward and never shy, the reader feels welcome and respected as Robertson plays the role of earnest life professor. He remains true to his literary tone in real life. “All the writers I like have voices. Language and the way they sound was always important to me,” Robertson said. “I think of myself as a sort of highbrow lowbrow. My needs are simple, but with that comes an honesty.”
Perhaps surprisingly, one of the fifteen reasons is the antithesis of life. “I didn’t realize until about three quarters of the way through the book there was going to be a chapter called Death. That kind of snuck up on me, but it seemed appropriate, because no matter how wonderful things are you’re still going to die.” It’s that sort of off-the-cuff realism that makes Why Not an entertaining and insightful read.
So if you’ve ever grappled with existential angst, cried for no good reason or howled at the moon, Why Not will remind you that you’re not crazy. If you haven’t, I hear Hilary Duff just released her second memoir. And, if you find yourself contemplating jumping from a bridge, here’s an alternative spine worth cracking.
This article was originally published on our old website at https://thenewspaper.ca/the-arts/why-not-read-it/.