A book about human nature that makes your head spin – in a good way

Vincent Deary’s How We Are is crammed with ideas. William Leith can’t wait for the next two volumes

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

6 September 2014

9:00 AM

How We Are Vincent Deary

Allen Lane, pp.261, £16.99, ISBN: 9780241005355

Vincent Deary is a therapist, and this book is the first part of a trilogy. How We Are is about human nature. Books two and three will be called How We Break and How We Mend. Three serious tomes, backed by a serious publisher. You open it thinking: this is not going to be an easy self-help book where everything is mapped out for you. It won’t be a walk in the park.

In fact, pretty much the first thing Deary does is to examine the concept of walking in a park. ‘“A walk in the park” is a synonym for ease,’ he tells us, ‘because the park knows how to walk.’ In other words, when you enter a park, you don’t have to make any decisions, because the park has already made them for you. The paths are marked out. All you have to do is follow them. You don’t have to think — or at least, you don’t have to think any more than you want to. ‘A good park anticipates our desire,’ says Deary. ‘Anticipated desire is the key to leisure.’

Strolling down the path of this leisurely thought, Deary then asks us to look away from the path. Human beings, he suggests, are themselves like parks. Driven by our desires, the evolutionary process has made us into a living concoction of beaten paths. ‘You are the record, the embodiment of life’s ceaseless desiring, written in tiny molecular hand, transcribed and translated into flesh, from dust and water.’

Wow! Peering down this conceptual mineshaft, we now get an idea of Deary’s project. He wants us to think — about life, the universe, the bits and pieces we are made from.‘Where do we start?’, he asks. Well, a long time ago, we were nothing but dust and water, and then, after a billion years, ‘a couple of buckets of water and a bag of earth became this you, here now, so blithely reading, turning pages.’ How did this happen? How did dust become human? Because, says Deary, the dust was hungry. As he puts it: ‘Imagine the first attempts at hunger, matter desperately maintaining its structure through stealing other matter.’ First the structure is maintained. Then it becomes more complex. Finally it becomes us.

This is a book that gets your mind whizzing off in lots of directions. Having made us contemplate the primordial ooze, Deary cuts to the two world wars of the last century, and gets us to see how, for some soldiers, killing became second nature. Not quite a walk in the park, but you can be trained to perform combat duties ‘on automatic’. Then Deary gets us to think how much of our lives are performed automatically. It’s a lot. We drive automatically. We shop automatically. In fact, if we were to stop doing all the normal stuff automatically we’d become self-conscious — think of how it feels when you’re walking along in the knowledge you’re being observed. Yes, slightly weird.

So what’s going on? Our brains are like complex machines that make us move around on automatic. Mostly, the conscious centres of our minds are bypassed. And memory, of course, is not an archive — it’s more like a servant, updating itself in the way that feels most helpful, like a corrupt news agency. And even when we think we’re making a conscious decision, we’re not; the decision is made before we know it, in the murk of our unconscious. What we believe to be the moment of agency is actually more like the moment of acknowledgment. In other words, I may think I’m the boss of my thoughts and actions, but really I’m the boss’s PR man.

Towards the end, Deary says, ‘Sara, a friend in publishing, tells me I’ll have to find my trait unaire, my USP, my unique selling point.’ So, what exactly is this? It’s a book about human nature. It’s crammed with ideas. It makes your head spin, in a good way. It tells us that human beings form habits, and that we are less in control of our minds than we thought we were. This is how we are. I’m looking forward to how we break.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £14.99. Tel: 08430 600033

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Show comments
  • waltherm

    “Sam Leith can’t wait for the next two volumes”? “Sam”? Not “William,” the author of this review?

  • Kitty MLB

    ‘A book about human nature that’ll make your head spin’
    Why write one, the joy of life is that which cannot be explained..
    the mysteries of life’s big tapestries.

  • Kitty MLB

    Oh I forgot what about the human nature of men in regards
    to loo seats, and never asking for directions when lost in car.

    • gerontius

      Men do not get lost in cars, they get temporarily dis-orientated that is all.
      Why do gals read road maps upside down – I mean why? I cannot understand wife’s explanation. What does you hedgehog say?

  • Seldom Seen

    If a good park anticipated our desires, it would have more bags and receptacles for dog s**t

  • Mike Power

    Also available from Amazon from £8 + postage.

    • thomasaikenhead


      An interesting point but then it is perhaps interesting to consider the difference between price and value?

      For those with very limited financial means, Amazon can provide the cheapest option to purchase the book.

      One factor to consider is the fact that if we do not support our local, independent bookshops they will die out.

      One of my greatest pleasures is browsing in the Cobham Bookshop and discussing the wares on offer with the knowledgeable owner and staff and fellow customers.

      Amazon, like Uber and Starbucks and Microsoft and Apple is yet another US corporation that pays virtually no tax in the UK and thus no contribution to British society despite having a massive revenue from its British clients.

      I am fortunate to be able to pay the reasonable price to purchase this book from a local bookshop.

      Moderators – I have no connection or financial interest whatsoever in the Cobham Bookshop, this post is not an advert, just an observation.

      • Mike Power

        Over the years I have spent thousand of pounds on books, mostly bought from independent book shops. I have supported them even when the service has been poor e.g. waiting ages for a book to arrive in store. Unfortunately, i am now poor. And I have to save where I can. Given that this article advertises the book at the Spectator “Bookstore” I don’t feel I’m taking the bread from the mouths of any book shop owners by pointing out that it’s available on Amazon for a few quid less. As for Amazon’s tax arrangements, there isn’t space here to explain why the widely held view that they are tax avoiders is wrong, but I’m afraid it is.

        • thomasaikenhead

          Good points Mike, and well paid and The Spectator is not an independent book store!

          Sorry to hear that you are now power, I hope you return to being wealthy in the near future!

          • Mike Power

            Nasty divorce, so it’s unlikely without a lottery win. Ironically the name Power is Irish from de Poer meaning…poor. It seems it was my destiny. Ha ha.

          • thomasaikenhead

            Are you sure about the origins of the name being linked to poverty?

            The de Poer and de la Poer were Normans who were powerful and had important descendants like Lord John Beresford and others.

            Anyway, poverty is never about financial means, true poverty is the lack of any emotional, spiritual or intellect, the rest is mere money!

            BTW I speak from experience having grown up in finically challenging circumstances, become wealthy, lost it all but now getting it back again.

            Along the way cane across ‘The Skint Foodie’ who had it all and lost it but simply took his life in a different direction.

          • Mike Power

            The name might be related to being from Picardy but there is now a strong contention made that the name actually predates the Normans and is in fact of Irish origin as originally claimed by the 17th C genealogist Dubhaltach Mac Fhirbhisigh in The Great Book of Irish Genealogies. From Pór (or Pur) meaning seed, race, or clan. Who knows? 🙂

          • Mike Power

            Yes you are right about poverty. To be honest, I don’t feel poor in any way. Skint sometimes certainly but, as you say, that is only money. Just found the Skint Foodie blog, thanks for the heads up.

          • Mike Power

            I still love bookshops especially second hand ones. They are usually havens of sanity run by eccentrics, which I like. Shame there are fewer and fewer around.

          • thomasaikenhead

            Good point, I like them too and also release books via Books Crossing when I no longer need them.

            I love second hand bookshops as well!

  • Fenton!

    Sounds interesting, though I reject the popular notion that my ‘unconscious’ is somehow in charge, and that it is in a separate compartment of my being that my ‘conscious’ is barred from seeing. If anything I think it is the other way around: one is aware and that awareness is often reflected in the body and in its movements (e.g. dreams). In any case, consciousness exists on a continuum: there aren’t separate houses.

    As for puppies appealing to our emotions: yes, indeed — I wrote the book on that:

  • sadaf

    i like this thought