First things first. I didn’t actually read The Geography of Bliss.
I wanted to, and I wanted to like it; I really did. The simplicity and crisp color of the cover drew me in when I first saw it in the bookstore, as did the author’s premise.
He would spend a year traveling to ten countries in search of something that was, for him, as elusive as the Fountain of Youth: happiness.
As a self-admitted mope, Eric Weiner, a veteran foreign correspondent for National Public Radio, wanted to find out if some places in the world were happier than others, and if so, why.
But when my review copy of The Geography of Bliss arrived, it was in the form of a hefty package of 11 CDs. The audiobook version of The Geography of Bliss runs right around 12 hours.
And if Weiner’s being honest about himself, I should be forthcoming, too. I don’t like audiobooks. Still, I set aside my preference for the written word and spent 12 hours with the spoken word, read by the author himself.
I was interested enough in the reason for Weiner’s journey, not because I believed he’d find the geography of bliss, but because I thought the trip itself might make for some interesting stories, both about the people and places he’d met and about Weiner coming to know himself.
Unfortunately, I was wrong.
Ask The “Experts”
The principal problem with Weiner’s book is that he sacrifices the richness of his own travel stories by constantly indulging his maddening propensity to turn to “experts” to explain what happiness is and what makes humans happy.
While many writers have worked wonders unscrolling their personal narratives against the backdrop of a well-rendered historical and sociocultural context, Weiner’s attempts to do so are both awkward and distracting.
Weiner is particularly fond of scientific studies, and he logs empirical results as if piling up a sufficient number of scholars’ conclusions will substantiate a hypothesis that he himself has not defined clearly.
This narrative conceit could work in defter hands, but Weiner seems to be more confident in studies than he is in his own experiences. This is a shame because the best travel writers know that it’s the story-their story-that’s everything.
A Shallow Search
Since we’re talking science more than travelogue, it’s worth mentioning that Weiner’s methodology is also problematic.
There’s the matter of Weiner’s crossing a border long enough to get a feel for the country but short enough to avoid too much of its reality, the layers and complexities of which are only exposed over time.
Weiner says that his schedule was dictated by “local rhythms” rather than the journalist’s deadline to which he was accustomed, but the moments in the book when Weiner “goes local” are few and far between.
More often than not, his “local” connection is an expat, whose decision to live in the place he is visiting is verification enough for Weiner that his contact is a representative liaison qualified to pass judgment on local happiness.
Fondue + Trains + Chocolate = Happiness?
Weiner’s strategy for cultural immersion is also limiting. Weiner begins his visit to Switzerland, for instance, by connecting with Susan, an American whose “candor is constantly bumping up against the Swiss reserve.”
Susan hardly seems the best person to introduce Weiner to Swiss life and facilitate his search for the happiness grail. Yet Weiner doesn’t find it problematic that Susan’s assessment of the Swiss is that they are “culturally constipated.”
Instead, he entrusts Susan to give him entree into the Swiss mindset. She takes that trust and makes sure Weiner eats some fondue, which, along with impeccably clean Swiss trains and chocolate, is so deeply satisfying that Weiner doesn’t feel compelled to dig deeper into Swiss life.
The perpetually glum Weiner has experienced happiness, however superficial and fleeting it may be, which is good enough for him. Next country!
The Swiss, he concludes hastily before moving on-in much the same way he will conclude about the other countries he visits-are not particularly happy, though they are capable of a mix of contentment and joy, for which he coins the term “conjoyment.”
This strategy of avoiding any definitive conclusions allows Weiner to seize his own moments of happiness while absolving him of the responsibility to arrive at any meaningful or decisive declarations for his reader.
A World Traveler Falls Short
What makes Weiner’s willingness to be guided by others particularly troubling is the fact that his travel resume is fairly impressive.
As a foreign correspondent for NPR, Weiner has a good bit of ink in his passport, having reported from Bhutan and the Middle East. Clearly, he’s no stranger to the world’s trouble spots.
Perhaps it’s his career-long immersion in conflict zones and his reportorial bent that made it difficult for him to view The Geography of Bliss as anything other than a quasi-academic exercise.
On his website, Weiner writers that The Geography of Bliss is about place. “Change your place, I believe,” he writes easily, “and you can change your life.” Perhaps.
But The Geography of Bliss fails to convince the reader that Weiner understands the places he visited, much less the joy of discovering others… and oneself.
What do you think about The Geography Of Happiness (the book or the idea)? Share your thoughts below!