Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark

Part self-help book, part memoir about finding your inner glow

Content warning: cancer

I think it’s pretty obvious why I picked up this book: it is breathtaking. The unique hardcover design is covered in subtle, intricate silver foil and it is truly eye-catching when you walk past it in a bookshop as I did. I saw Julia Baird speak some years ago about her biography of Queen Victoria, but I haven’t yet managed to tackle that very large book. However, this book seemed much more manageable and I think we can all agree we need a bit of brightening up.

“Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark” by Julia Baird is a non-fiction book that blends memoir with self-help. Drawing on her own experiences in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, Baird considers what it is that nurtures us during challenging times and how we can foster our own phosphorescence. Baird divides her book into four main sections that loosely deal with our physical environment, our identity, friendship and finding hope.

There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas in this book. Baird incorporates snippets of various philosophies and research to support the things that she does in her life that she finds helpful. I enjoyed the earlier chapters about nature the most, especially about the physical phenomenon of phosphorescence. Reading Baird’s account of swimming at Manly Beach has made me want to get into distance swimming even more and Baird’s awe for cuttlefish was nice to read around the same time as I watched “My Octopus Teacher“. Baird is a spirited writer who beautifully captures the awe nature inspires in us. I was also quite interested in reading about the movement within the Anglican Church to allow women to be ministers and how instead of accepting the idea, the patriarchs doubled down on including women.

However, for a lot of the book, I didn’t feel very engaged. I think the book that I was hoping for was something more like “H is for Hawk” with phosphorescence in the natural world as more of a central theme. I’ve always been captivated by things that glow, and some of my happiest memories are seeing unexpected fireflies at dusk and swimming with bioluminscent plankton, so I was expecting a blend of memoir and natural history. Unfortunately, this book only touches briefly on this phenomenon and the majority of the book is about Baird’s experiences living in New York, surviving cancer and, directly and indirectly, her religion. Without a clear central theme, it did feel a bit more like a collection of Baird’s essays and ruminations vaguely organised by theme. This book actually reminded me a lot of Leigh Sales’ “Any Ordinary Day“, except rather than forensically trying to figure out why events happen in anyone’s lives, Baird is more concerned with sharing the details of little decisions she has made to try to make sense of her own life. She also included two chapters that were letters to her own children which, while I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure really aligned with the rest of the book. I also felt that the audience this book is written for was quite a narrow one, and Baird doesn’t really acknowledge that a lot of her experiences are the result of significant privilege.

A book that will certainly cheer you up sitting on your bookshelf, but could have used more glowing jellyfish.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Pretty Books

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