Not long ago, I bought a copy of The Sunny Nihilist: A Declaration of the Pleasure of Pointlessness. I’d been browsing at my local Barnes & Noble in the philosophy section, when I ran across it. The cover caught my eye, and the title promised a view which I’m sympathetic to. I’d never heard of Wendy Syfret, but that doesn’t mean anything. There are plenty of philosophers that I’ve never heard of, and I like to give new authors a chance.
It turns out that I shouldn’t have judged the book by its cover. I should have opened it up and at least read the “About the author” section. Syfret isn’t a philosopher. She’s a freelance writer who used to be the managing editor of VICE Asia and the head of editorial for VICE Australia. That’s not inherently a problem. I wish more philosophy were written by lay people. But, in this case, the book turned out to be more self-help than philosophy.
The basic premise is that we’re all going to die and be forgotten and knowing that should be freeing. Life ultimately has no meaning, so we might as well enjoy what we can. It doesn’t advocate for a life without morals. Rather, it wants us all to live an Epicurean type of hedonism. Again, that’s not a problem. I don’t consider myself a nihilist, but it’s close to my overall viewpoint.
There are three main problems with the book. The first is that Syfret doesn’t seem to understand what nihilism is. Sure, she discusses Nietzche at some length, but a more accurate subtitle would have been “finding meaning in pointlessness”. As I said before, it’s similar to my views, but it’s not what was advertised.
The second problem is that the book is 180 pages long. It’s a super easy read, but it should have been a five-page college essay. It’s something I would expect in a Philosophy 101 class. If I were teaching that class, I’d probably give the paper a C. It’s decently well written, but it shows a misunderstanding of a key concept and doesn’t follow through on the thesis.
The third problem is that the book is myopic to the point of selfishness. Syfret is a millennial who was traumatized by the Covid-19 pandemic. It almost reads like a memoir of how she dealt with that trauma. She dealt with it by embracing her millennialness. It’s as if millennials are the only people who really get it. Sucks for the rest of us.
I’m not writing this in the “I read this book, so you don’t have to” kind of way. If you like self-help or breezy memoirs, you may very well enjoy this book, especially if you’re a millennial. Just go into it knowing what you’re getting into.