This review first appeared on the Englewood Review of Books.
Rob Bell, in his latest book, How to Be Here, explores how to create a life worth living through being present in the here and now. It addresses ideas that are becoming quite popular, likely because of their relevance for our modern culture and way of living. Bell continues with his strong, engaging writing style and story telling, so fans of his approach will likely appreciate this text, as well. His style should open up ideas to new audiences. At the same time, the book could be better organized to make his point clearer and send the message “home” more effectively.
As noted, Bell provides his usual writing that is engaging, accessible, and engrossing. His passion comes through clearly, and the personal anecdotes enliven abstract ideas. The short sections make the text easily digestible while allowing for pauses in reading, when needed. He is an incredibly effective story teller, and his success in many areas reflects this skill. It is once again displayed very well in How to Be Here.
The biggest challenge in this particular book is that, in many ways, it feels like a collection of short essays that are loosely connected, but could really stand on their own. I frequently found myself asking, “What is his point? Where is he going?” I struggled to find an overall thesis and direction. The book is subtitled A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living, although interestingly, that subtitle doesn’t appear on the cover to provide some clarity. In hindsight, the title does summarize the thesis and purpose of the book, mentioned above: Create a life worth living through being present in the here and now. However, there are several sections that dive into other sub-theses and concepts, like ikigai, a Japanese word for what gets you out of bed in the morning, motivated to take on the day. There are great ideas and discussions he presents, but they don’t feel fully realized over the course of the entire book. This is what contributes to that essay anthology feeling.
A short introduction providing a direction/thesis and tying all the parts together would have done wonders for the coherency of the narrative across the entire text. On the other hand, Bell's style traditionally tends to be conversational, and his ultimate point isn't often known until his work is done. This works well for his short Nooma videos or even longer sermons. A book is a different experience, though, and making a clear direction, even if the conclusion is still a surprise, is really critical for reader engagement and comprehension. He also doesn't go back and clearly connect all the dots on the backend, which would at least have provided retrospective coherency.
All that aside, the points he was trying to make were strong. In many ways, the text reminded me of a modern version of Brother Lawrence's Practice of the Presence of God. Bell illustrates this very well, in his unique, engaging style, emphasizing examples of and the power of being present in the moment, seeing the sanctity of the mundane, helps us experience life more fully and find meaning.
Indeed, there are many faith and cultural traditions, within and without Christianity, that have taught these lessons. The behavioral sciences have picked up on these principles in the past decade, generally describing them under the umbrella of mindfulness, and plenty of research has reinforced the truth of these claims. From that perspective, there isn't much new in Bell's text, although he doesn't necessarily claim that he is coming up with a new idea. In many ways, he is a story teller to illustrate and convey principles in new ways. And Bell has always been excellent at this. This story telling to bring abstract principles to life is what How to Be Here does best.
At the same time, the book full title: How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living is misleading, as it isn’t really a guide, at least not in a traditional sense. There are no steps, no real recommendations; just stories. A reader could easily walk away from the book wondering what they can really do to be here. Bell’s stories have examples, but they’re highly contextualized and therefore not necessarily generalizable. There are plenty of more concrete guides to mindfulness and presence that lay out example activities, prayers, exercises, etc. that can help us be more mindful and present in the moment. A potential downside of these materials is that they can be viewed prescriptively and formulaically, which is definitely a problem.
Perhaps this is why Bell takes a different approach. In reflection, an implicit part of his message seems to be that there is a journey, a story, to being able to be effectively present and create a life worth living. His initial and most enduring metaphor is in writing a story of our lives, starting with the blinking line on an electronic page. There is great truth to this approach, and frankly, I think it is truer than any activity, exercise, or form of prayer, as it is frequently in the doing of things that we lose our presence and sense of meaning. Yet many people need some examples of things to do to practice this sort of thing. Bell’s book can be complementary to these other, more traditional guides, with them providing practices, while he helps build motivation and weightiness to value of such practices.
In the end, How to Be Here is a book with meaning and value, but it doesn’t sit on its own well. Additional structure to orient the reader what the purpose of the book is, and ensuring all points are clearly connected would have strengthened it significantly. As it is literally advertised as a “how to” book and a “guide,” reference to other resources would have helped, as well. Even explicitly discussing the power of narrative and journey over practices, as I noted above, would have helped improve Bell's thesis and purpose.
This text is probably best for people who don’t necessarily need suggestions on what to do different (many of us know what to do), but need reminders of priorities and that mindfulness and presence is really quite worthwhile.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”