I first came across Jake Goldsmith when I was asked to help promote the inaugural Barbellion Prize – a book prize dedicated to the furtherance of ill and disabled voices in writing – which he founded. I became aware that he lived with chronic illness but had no comprehension of how much this affected his life. Neither Weak Nor Obtuse removed some of the blinkers that exist when casually pondering the difficulties faced by those who struggle with daily tasks most accomplish with unthinking ease. Such lack of consideration may be unintentional, but works such as this are important if only to raise awareness of how society must do better and not turn away when challenging issues are raised.
“Heaven forbid you make the healthies uncomfortable. One better not present a less than heroic image”
The author describes his book as an ‘indulgent memoir’. I came to view it as a philosophical treatise. Although clearly articulated, the thinking is meaty, requiring time to consume and digest. While indirectly personal, thoughts and feelings are often expressed through opinions on others’ written works.
Goldsmith was born with cystic fibrosis, a progressive and life limiting condition for which there is no cure. He makes clear that he is now very ill and has known since childhood he is likely to die before his peers. This prognosis has shaped his attitude and outlook. Nevertheless, he remains a highly intelligent and reactive young man with all the baggage this brings. Within these pages are moving reflections on love, romance and friendship – how some may feel that allowing oneself to care deeply for a person with limited life expectancy could be regarded as an act of ‘self-harm’, and how hurtful and damaging this thought process can be. The author writes of loneliness, of a longing for companionship. It is not a call for sympathy so much as a reminder that the ill and disabled are human beings.
The early sections of the book reflect on how shallow and fickle much thinking is in our current culture of fast media and judgemental reaction.
“With the contemporary world comes mass saturation. Slowing down to reflect goes awry when surrounded by zooming things. And I want something reflective over something so hurried. It is in some ways a primitive wish. A quickened culture, as well as one of mass quantity, neither reflects nor understands itself very well.”
The author spends some time pondering the way society allows itself to be led down pathways without examining cause and effect more deeply – believing the soundbites and shallow virtue blaming – and how this could be changed.
“Our opponents are stronger than we think and we need to act tactically and more astutely”
He cautions against those who believe pulling systems of governance down is necessary as this would merely open the doors for new oppressors to enter.
“Razing the ground does not give a pristine opportunity to rebuild, because most are incapable of that”
Goldsmith is also wary of those who believe their country harbours so much that is bad it should be abandoned, and of those who are so convinced by their own intelligence they look down on anyone who doesn’t agree with their opinions.
“Arrogance comes easily if one can set themselves apart from their peers just by knowledge accumulation”
The ideas presented are woven around the writings of many historic thinkers. The author is obviously well read and capable, peeling back the layers of common complaint and complacency to urge a more profound and reflective debate.
This is not, then, a memoir in the more common vein of the genre. Nevertheless, it offers a window into the experience of living within a painfully failing body while retaining a sharp and questioning, if modestly presented, intellect and open heart.
Not a book to be rushed but one with potential to change a reader’s outlook, especially as regards the ill and disabled and the lives we all live in a shared society. A profoundly moving but also thought provoking and rewarding read.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Sagging Meniscus.