Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why I Loved Eat, Pray, Love

This is one of those entries that starts off with a sense of shame, yet I feel the need to say something publicly. It's probably something I should keep to myself, judging by other things I read online and comments I have heard in person. But, so be it. I love Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.

See, as I have talked about this book over the last couple of years, I have heard a lot of criticisms. Some people have called the book emotionally manipulative. Some have hated the author for being self-centered. Some have criticized her because of her privileged background and perspective. Some hate her for being paid to go on the trip rather than having the experience and choosing to write about it afterward. I have been in creative writing workshops where the book has been mentioned to snickers and apologies by those who read it: "I know I shouldn't have finished it, but I did" and "I'm sorry I gave that woman my money." At Jezebel, you have a woman saying, "[I] was happy she was getting fat." Why just criticize a book when you can slam the author with personal attacks? Ha, ha, fatty!

I was encountering these criticisms while I was reading it for the first time, and I admit that those judgment made me feel a bit stupid and guilty. I felt stupid because I wasn't seeing what other people were seeing. I was missing the emotional manipulation, for example. I felt guilty because not only was I enjoying the book, but I was feeling a pretty deep connection to it when so many other people were trashing it.

What's interesting is how a lot of the talk I hear about the book has to do with why we should care about a whiny woman who cheated on her husband and then gets to travel for a year. I'm not saying everyone should like the book. I'm saying that the intensity and types of comments I was hearing seemed to be saying that no one should like this book. And that's why I stopped talking about it even as I taught it.

I taught it for the second time this summer, and this blog entry is the result of that teaching. My students had amazing conversations about it! This was an online class, so it was all written out, and I loved the comments they made. Many of them wrote about not wanting to read the book because they didn't know why they should care about some woman who won't stop complaining. But all of those students ended up getting really into the book. I'm not saying all of my students loved the book, but none of them hated it, and all of them could see the value in it. Granted, one class does not provide a definitive sample of standard responses, and this group might have been biased since many of them were nontraditional adults who have undergone or are undergoing divorce. But, pedagogically, the book worked well in my class (as it did the first time I taught it).

I think a lot of the criticisms miss the point of the book or make it easy to miss its value. If your focus is on a whiny woman who should just get over it already, then what she says will remain irrelevant to you. But what so many of my students and I felt drawn into was her discussion of spirituality. In each section, it seems like she is being driven to find where she should place her faith and hope. Each of the places she goes (Italy, India, Indonesia), has a passionate, deep sense of culture, yet there are intense differences between those cultures. Some people have criticized for thinking that she had to travel around the world to find an epiphany that she could have found at home, but I disagree. She had to travel to these places to have theses epiphanies.

I won't say a lot about the specifics of the book so that people can find out things on their own. The book did offer a view to me of lots of different kinds of people and places. Yes, Gilbert is the narrator, but I also learned a lot about other people and their places in and views of the world. And that's why I think should not be dismissed or generally trashed. If you don't like it, that's fine. But realize that some of us might just find it pretty damn meaningful.

I've been planning to write this entry for a while, but I hopped on it today because of the announcement yesterday that her next memoir will be out in January. It sounds fascinating, and I will buy it.


  1. I loved the book. Her spiritual journey resonated with me. And the three settings made the details of that journey just that much more fascinating.

    One of my favorite parts is the way she describes her struggle to learn how to meditate.

    I didn't read her as whiny at all; she's very self-deprecating and funny.

    Have you seen her TED talk? I loved that too.

  2. I also really liked it. My book club didn't. I musst admit I've never thought about using it to teach. hmmmm.