How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

How Should a Person Be First Impressions
How Should a Person Be? is categorized as a work of fiction, but reading it felt very much like sneaking a peek into the author’s diary. The main character’s name is Sheila, which is also the author’s name, and several of the characters’ friends in the book really do exist in our world. Writers are told to “write what you know”, and works of fiction are often inspired by factual events. This book begs the question: At what point does reality become story? Is there a percentage of made-up stuff that a book must contain to be called “fiction”?

Drive-by Summary
Young, creative, and newly divorced – Sheila is a playwright on a deadline, and struggling with a severe case of writer’s block that is symbolic of how stuck she’s feeling in general. In the process of attempting to complete the play she’s already been paid to write, she embarks on a “life experiment” in which she closely observes and records her closest friends and relationships.

My Favorite Character
I hate to admit to being as narcissistic or irresponsible as Sheila reveals herself to be, but if I’m truly honest I’ll have to confess I’m guilty of many of her thoughts and actions at different points in my life. The likeability of the character occurs because the author lets it all hang out – the ugly and the beautiful, the mundane and the magical, the superficial and the reverent.

Words to Live By
Puer aeternus = the eternal child

“But while others actually build a life in which things gain in meaning and significance, this is not true of the puer. Such a person inevitably looks back on life as it nears its end with a feeling of emptiness and sadness, aware of what they have built: nothing. In their quest for a life without failure, suffering, or doubt, that is what they achieve: a life empty of all those things that make a human life meaningful.”

Recommended For
If you’re carrying a load of hidden shame, have voyeuristic tendencies, and enjoy subjecting yourself to the philosophizing of the self-absorbed, you’ll definitely enjoy this book. If you’re curious about the lives of young women and men populating the artsy underbelly of the city, you’ll probably like this book. If you feel that young people today are too self-focused, you might be annoyed by the characters in this book – but I’d bet you’ll still be interested in this peek into their lives. Be forewarned – Sheila lives the life of a sexually active adult and some related scenes are graphically depicted.

Final Say
I’ve always had a difficult time keeping a diary because of the embarrassing, and sometimes plain old boring, honesty that’s required. I don’t like to admit that I feel the way that I do sometimes, or that I’ve behaved the way that I have. I admire Sheila Heti’s bravery in writing this book and sending it out into the world.

You can get How Should a Person Be? at the Bellingham Public Library.

– Jenni

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