All of us are ultimately average, says author Eleanor Ross, and we should find that liberating rather than saddening. In this interview, she recommends five books across fiction and nonfiction that can help us understand and embrace our averageness.
Being average is the unifying theme of the books you have chosen. Do you consider yourself average? Is that a good or a bad thing from your point of view?
I feel that we need to redefine what being average means. I consider myself to be completely average because I’m a human being with average features and average thoughts. I haven’t written anything particularly brilliant, and I haven’t written anything particularly terrible. That puts me firmly in the average category.
I was brought up in a Western meritocracy. In our society, there is so much pressure to be the best at everything. There will always be someone who’s better at something than I am. However, that person might be very bad at making pasta, whereas my pasta is fine.
You must determine what’s meaningful to you, reframe what success means, and decide what’s important to you and what isn’t. It has taken me a very long time to reach this realization, but doing so has raised my level of contentment.
This is a bible for understanding ‘women’s place and space’ in the world we live in today. I have included it in this list about being average because it is crucial to understand where we each individually come from and what we are up against. One of the things Criado-Perez does so well in this book is to describe the glass ceiling and the guardrails that society has in place to stop women from breaking out and succeeding. Statistics show that women earn less money than men for doing the same job, and women are tasked with more caring responsibilities and other unpaid work. When I say women, I am talking about everyone who identifies as a woman, including non-binary people.
Perez dives into the minutiae of daily life to reveal how the data that informs everything from urban planning to product design is based predominantly on men. Seatbelts are designed to accommodate a six-foot male body. While grocery shopping, most women find that many products are placed out of their reach by design, because supermarkets have been scaled to fit men. Subway systems run directly from the suburbs into the city centre instead of connecting the various residential, recreational, commercial and industrial zones, because they were designed to carry a traditionally male workforce into the business district instead of facilitating childcare, household errands, and other responsibilities that tend to fall under women’s jurisdiction.
While these may sound like random facts that are not connected, they corroborate a picture of how our world has been constructed with men in mind. It’s no wonder that at times we feel unable to achieve our full potential. Women are made to feel that way by a society in which everything is stacked against us. Once we understand the source of our frustration, we realize that our discontentment is rational and grounded. We can then reframe and target our anger in a more constructive fashion.
When you realize that rally karts were not built for your body, you can understand why you are not the best rally driver. However, that’s not to say you should sit back and accept it.
“We don’t have to be an award-winning scientist to experience joy”
Understanding where the barriers lie makes it easier to remove them. Let’s say that whenever you are in an airport, you show up late at the departure gate. You’re starting to feel deficient as a person. Then, you realise that every departure board is positioned at an angle that’s difficult for you to see. The floor is slippery, and the company for whom you work requires you to wear heels when you’re traveling, so you’re always stumbling through the departure lounge. Now that you have identified the issues, you can start to address them. You have to understand your nemesis to beat it.
The invisibility referenced in the book’s title relates to what Perez describes as gender blindness. It’s one thing to be all-encompassing and equitable. But if we are blind to the issues that impact women, then how can we ever address those issues?
An interesting example in tech is the smartphone. Smartphones are designed to fit a man’s hand. I had always wondered why I frequently drop my smartphone, and why my phone doesn’t fit into any of my pockets—if I am lucky enough to have pockets. I realized I can’t text with one hand. In adverts, I always see people doing that and being very proficient. It always made me feel inept. I ultimately realized that my phone was not designed for a woman’s hand. Once you think about it, it seems so obvious.
In a society that is designed to make me feel average, I can accept being average. My mantra is: We all are average. If we can admit that to ourselves, it will help us to be more content in life.
Your next recommendation for us is a German novel about (among other things) being average, Siblings by Brigitte Reimann. Can you tell us about this book?
Siblings is a mind-blowing novel first published in German in 1963. It has recently been translated into English by Lucy Jones, who is a phenomenal translator. It has everything you want from a book, and a bonus is – it’s short.
It’s about siblings living in East Germany. While the brother decides to flee across the border into West Germany, the sister is convinced that the world they live in is great. The book is narrated by the sister, an artist who paints for the Party. The novel questions the meaning of art and whether art can still be considered art when it is controlled by someone other than the artist.
Reimann, who was herself a state-sponsored artist living in the GDR, had grappled with the same questions about whether to leave or to stay. Her protagonist realizes that in a life that does not have peaks and troughs and which simply ticks along, there’s a sense of contentment to be found. When the Wall came down, it came as a shock to the East Germans for many reasons. One of these reasons is that life had become so comfortable.
How do you balance accepting the structural reasons for obstacles and limitations with trying to change them? How do you keep those two things at once?
There’s a brilliant book by Katja Hoyer called Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990, which analyses the impression that the West has of East Germans at that time. They were viewed as being miserable and desperate, and wanting to flee. Both Siblings and Beyond the Wall depict the East Germans in a more nuanced manner. The GDR was the reality in which they were born, got married, and died. They had hook-ups and rubbish jobs.
These books reframe the way we understand how these people lived their lives under this regime. It’s about accepting the boundaries that are put in place. Again, I’m not suggesting we simply accept them; we need to revolt, but we need to understand the framework to target our frustrations and anger successfully.
If you dissect your everyday life, you will start to wonder: Why am I working nine to five? Why do I work during daylight hours? If you start to question everything too much, it can psychologically grind you down. Both these books examine how people cope while living in a framework that some of us would describe as oppressive. Other people would describe it as being somewhat liberating because it allows you to be creative in other ways.
To what do you attribute our expectations of success? What informs our ideas of what one should achieve in life?
Society teaches us that if you simply tick all the boxes, you will be successful. Social media plays a huge part in this. The measure of success is predetermined by society. It is defined by the value of your house, the size of your car, and the number of offspring you produce with your perfect partner.
This image of success can be harmful, especially for those of us who don’t happen to fall into that bracket. Capitalist ideals can be equally as damaging as the ‘oppressive’ social structures that Brigitte Reimann was talking about in her book. They’re not oppressive, because they don’t have to be. Likewise, capitalism’s framework and structures can seem oppressive on paper, but they don’t have to be, because we tend to make the best of things. It’s human nature to have hope and to make the best of things. That’s what Reimann so accurately depicts in Siblings.
In our society, one form of escapism is looking at social media. We look at an influencer and we think, She lives just down the road. She filmed a video of her cat and now she’s earning millions of pounds.Why can’t I achieve that?
We are expected to constantly be hustling and trying to better ourselves. A dominant narrative in politics is that we should pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. We feel pressured to always be switched on. There are times when you need to spend the afternoon in bed or enjoy a cup of tea, but this is frowned upon in our culture.
This relates to your book, Good Enough. Would you like to tell us a little bit about that?
Growing up, I was told that as long as I did everything right, I would be successful. And I would be happy because success always equates with happiness. I strongly disagree with that now. One of the reasons I wrote this book was that I experienced a mental breakdown. I was working on several projects at once, and I felt I wasn’t progressing as quickly as I felt I should. I was frustrated by this. I was haunted by pace.
I pushed myself to breaking point. I was exhausted, and my brain was not functioning well. I slowly ground to a halt. I could no longer access my creativity, and I could no longer connect to other people. I realised how confined I was by the structure of the society in which I grew up. I realized this was not a sustainable way to live.
I have recovered, after a lot of self-reflection. I had to reconfigure my understanding of the words success, progress, and growth, and to redefine them in terms of what they mean to me. Was I moving in the right direction? I realized that I don’t want the form of success that is defined by society. That’s not for me.
I think we are minnows at the bottom of a garden pond, swimming toward the light. Once we reach the surface, we are eaten by a fish or caught by a child with a fishing rod. Maybe we shouldn’t be so eager to follow the light. The light isn’t always our friend.
Beautifully said. Your next recommendation for us to learn about how to be average is another novel, Bewilderment by Richard Powers. Can you tell us about this book?
This novel is about a world-renowned scientist who has lost his wife and is struggling to understand his son, who is undergoing complex neurological issues. The father is working in space. He spends every day looking at the stars. He and his son are processing their grief together, and he’s bonding with his son by teaching him about stars. The father is a genius whose work means everything to him. He starts to think about ways he can apply his training to mending his son’s brain and trying to help his son to find joy in life again.
The novel explores the concept that it’s fine to give things up if they’re no longer necessary to live a happy and wholesome life. At one point, the scientist unveils an eco-protest poster in DC, risking his career, because his son has become passionate about biodiversity.
It’s reminiscent of the scene in TheSound of Music in which Captain Von Trapp realizes that being a colonel isn’t everything, and he starts to value spending time with his children. Bewilderment shows us that our lives are continually in flux, and we can choose the direction that we want to move in. We don’t have to be an award-winning scientist to experience joy. This man now finds joy in caring for his son. It’s a beautiful reflection on how society penalizes workers who choose a different path to success. Their image of success may differ from the one they would have chosen at the start of their careers.
Your next recommendation for us about the art of being average is a nonfiction work, Waterlog by Roger Deakin. Can you tell us more about this book?
Waterlog is a classic. Roger Deakin died of cancer in 2006. He was an English naturalist and writer who truly appreciated the beauty of nature and found joy in the smallest things. He built himself a house with a moat, and he loved to swim. He was a rustic, wonderful man who believed in communing and collaborating with nature rather than usurping it.
In this book, he documents swimming in Britain’s waterways during a time when wild swimming had not yet become popular. It was an act of defiance against societal norms. Very few people would choose to swim in the Cambridgeshire Fens, which are full of eels. Deakin would swim naked in a lake and write about the feeling of being at one with nature.
We tend to view the natural world in terms of what it can provide, whether that’s a finance option in carbon markets or carbon dioxide. We’re always talking about trees in a transactional way. For this reason, I often reflected on this book as I was writing my own. Once, as I was riding the Metro, I suddenly became aware that my hand was holding a pole. I thought, When was the last time I touched something natural? Something uncontaminated by technology?
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I could not remember when I had last touched moss, a leaf, or even a drystone wall. I had only touched concrete, pencils, my MacBook, and a metal door. Everything I had touched was branded. I thought, I live on a planet that is sustained by the natural world, and yet I have chosen to immerse myself in this concrete jungle. That started me thinking about how little we value the ebb and flow of nature. We prioritize humans in such a self-important way. Perhaps we should think more like Roger Deakin and see the value and beauty in our waterways. I would also recommend Deakin’s Wildwood, which is about finding community in forests and woods, and Underland by Robert Macfarlane.
When we immerse ourselves in nature, we understand that there is always something bigger than we are. When you swim in a river, the river doesn’t care whether you’re a CEO. To nature, you’re nothing. You’re part of the sea or part of the air. You’re part of the woods. It is a very beautiful reminder of being average in a very positive way.
Your final selection for us is The Vegetarian by Han Kang. Can you please introduce us to this work?
A common thread in much of the South Korean literature I’ve read in translation, and something I love, is the focus on the average person.
The Vegetarian is a fascinating reflection on a culture in which stepping out of the ordinary is not as celebrated as it might be in the US (though this may be a sweeping generalization). Han Kang’s novels center on people you would describe as normal and having very few remarkable characteristics.
The Vegetarian is a novel about a woman called Yeong-hye. The first part of the novel is narrated by her husband, who describes her as being completely unremarkable. She’s a homemaker. She makes his dinner. She’s quiet. She wears black slip-on shoes. She’s a gentle presence that is always perfecting her surroundings. She can be seen as an accoutrement to the lives of those around her.
I’ve chosen this book because it’s about how a seemingly average person is capable of extraordinary acts. Even if we perceive ourselves to be average, whether in a negative sense or in the sense that we all are average, it doesn’t stop us from pushing back when necessary.
We have so few acts of resistance available to us. Many of us are reading books like How to Blow Up a Pipeline, which recently has been made into a film. Small acts of resistance have been witnessed throughout history. During periods of religious persecution, there were moments when people would have thrown someone a food parcel or talked to somebody across the divide. These are the things that truly stand out in humankind because they go against societal expectations.
Many of my book choices are about things that step outside of societal norms. In The Vegetarian, Han Kang describes a woman who is completely unremarkable in every way, yet she chooses her act of resistance in the most poignant possible way.
In Korean society, eating meat is seen as an integral part of life, and it signifies wealth and prosperity. Yeong-hye’s decision to become vegetarian angers everyone around her. At dinner one night, Yeong-hye’s sister tries to force-feed her meat. Yeong-hye enrages everybody by going against what society expects of her. She’s saying, I have fulfilled your requirements my whole life. On the surface I have seemed relatively content, but now it’s time to do small things to express my discontentment. Without revealing too much of the plot, other elements come into play as this choice continues to expand and creates lasting issues.
This novel, about subverting societal expectations whenever and however we can, is inspirational, sad, and beautiful. When Yeong-hye’s lover paints a flower on her body, she is awestruck by it. She feels that this flower is blooming on her body, and it provides the only color in an otherwise monochrome life. It makes her mind come alive again. There’s something very beautiful in these small acts of transgression. They give us hope. Being average has its moments, but it’s necessary to step out of line from time to time.
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