BOOK REVIEW: Phosphorescence by Julia Baird

The Blurb (from Goodreads):

Over the last decade, we have become better at knowing what brings us contentment, well-being and joy. We know, for example, that there are a few core truths to science of happiness. We know that being kind and altruistic makes us happy, that turning off devices, talking to people, forging relationships, living with meaning and delving into the concerns of others offer our best chance at achieving happiness. But how do we retain happiness? It often slips out of our hands as quickly as we find it. So, when we are exposed to, or learn, good things, how do we continue to burn with them?

And more than that, when our world goes dark, when we're overwhelmed by illness or heartbreak, loss or pain, how do we survive, stay alive or even bloom? In the muck and grit of a daily existence full of disappointments and a disturbing lack of control over many of the things that matter most - finite relationships, fragile health, fraying economies, a planet in peril - how do we find, nurture and carry our own inner, living light - a light to ward off the darkness?

My Thoughts:

I read and enjoyed Julia Baird’s mammoth biography of Queen Victoria, which I thought beautifully written and impeccably researched, but I was drawn to buy this book because of its title: Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder & Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark. (Oh, and because of the cover. It’s gorgeous!)


I am a seeker of awe and wonder. I spend my life pursuing moments of peak experience, searching for joys both small and immense, trying to live a life filled with meaning and purpose. I am draw to wild places and moments of enchantment. And I’ve always been fascinated by living sources of lights – glow-worms and fireflies and radiant jellyfish. I fill my fiction with them.


I also love books that weave together science, history, poetry, and personal memoir. I have similar books on bees, and roses, and apples, and birds, and mountains, and colours. So I was always going to love this book.


Essentially, it’s a collection of essays, many of which have been published in earlier forms before. As is to be expected, some are better than others.


I particularly loved the opening chapters, about swimming in the ocean, the need to immerse ourselves in nature, and searching for silence; and the final chapter, in which she quotes my favourite poet, Mary Oliver, and writes about her own rapturous encounter with phosphorescence, swimming in the dark off Manly Beach in Sydney:


“The sea was black and the sky was black and I felt a little nervous: sharks feed in the dark. But just a few metres out from the shore, the sparkles appeared. I was transfixed. My fingers threw out fistfuls of sequins with every stroke. A galaxy of stars flew past my goggles. It was as though I was flying through space, like the opening scenes of the Star Wars movies, gliding rapidly through a universe only I could see.”


But every essay was interesting, perceptive, well-written and full of warmth. And, drawn together in this way, they case light on the very human dilemma of longing for happiness, for meaning, for purpose, for connection. I thought this book was beautiful and wise and brave, and it’s one I will be dipping into again and again.

You might also like to read my review of Anaesthesia by Kate Cole Adams:

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