A book worth reading: Stephen Grosz “The Examined Life”


What appeals to a reader about a book, or what a reader takes away from a book is as individual and personal as the reader. What is of most significant to one, may be of lesser importance, or even insignificant to another. The fact that many different readers can read the same book and take away a very different impression, understanding and emotional connection is testament to the power of the written word, the value of reading and the ability of an author to reach readers on many different levels.

Recently I read Anne Goodwin’s review of the book “The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves” by Stephen Grosz. Anne described the book as a “must read for any thoughtful individual.”

I was already familiar with the quote attributed to Socrates:

“An unexamined life is not worth living.”

and recently read an article by Simon Longstaff in the NewPhilosopher magazine examining the quote.

Simon suggested that

“one can make sense of Socrates’ claim if it is understood to mean something like – those who do not examine their lives (make conscious ethical decisions) fail to live a life that allows them to experience being fully human.”

He goes on to say that

“In a world of abiding uncertainty and complexity one can recognise a certain attraction in not examining too much, for too long in life. Thus the allure of those who offer to provide clear answers, simple directions, precise instructions (whatever) so that you may set aside examination and merely comply, or unthinkingly follow custom and practice – perhaps living a conventionally moral life rather than an examined ethical life. One can easily imagine how pleasant an unexamined life might be.” 

I like to think of myself as a thinker often engaging in a bit of self- or other-reflection, living a somewhat examined life, not blindly complying or following customs and practice and always open to a challenge of my beliefs and ideas.

Anne’s review intrigued me.  By fortunate coincidence I was finishing one audiobook and ready for another, and was delighted to find that “The Examined Life” was available in audio format.

Anne’s review gives 7 reasons why readers and writers of fiction should read “The Examined Life”. You can read them here.

As Anne suggested, I found it compelling “reading” throughout and agree with her description of the stories as

“especially exquisite. Beautiful prose, tightly structured, these are moral stories without being moralistic, gentle fables . . . that leave us pondering the big questions of how to live.”

Alex Clark on Vintage Books was also complimentary, saying that

“what The Examined Life shows above all else is that we should not fear looking deeply into ourselves, because it is more likely that the effort of holding our feelings at bay will render them far more damaging.”

In search of a succinct synopsis, I found this on the Book Depository:

“We are all storytellers we create stories to make sense of our lives. But it is not enough to tell tales. There must be someone to listen. In his work as a practicing psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz has spent the last twenty-five years uncovering the hidden feelings behind our most baffling behavior. The Examined Life distils more than 50,000 hours of conversation into pure psychological insight without the jargon. This extraordinary book is about one ordinary process: talking, listening, and understanding. Its aphoristic and elegant stories teach us a new kind of attentiveness. They also unveil a delicate self-portrait of the analyst at work and show how lessons learned in the consulting room can reveal as much to the analyst as to the patient. These are stories about our everyday lives: they are about the people we love and the lies we tell, the changes we bear and the grief. Ultimately, they show us not only how we lose ourselves but also how we might find ourselves.”

Each of these reviews focused upon the importance of examining life, of delving into our own stories and emotions.

At the commencement of this article I suggested that what we each take away from a book is as individual as we are; because what each of us brings to a book is very different, and what we need to take away is also different.

The part of this book that had the greatest impact upon my thinking will the subject of my next post. I hope you will join me for it.

If you have read or read “The Examined Life” by Stephen Grosz I would love to know what you think of it and which of it resonates mostly with you.

Please share your thoughts.

Quick links to articles mentioned in this post:

Anne Goodwin (Annethology)

New Philosopher

Vintage Books

Book Depository

5 thoughts on “A book worth reading: Stephen Grosz “The Examined Life”

  1. Annecdotist

    Linking this with your following post on praise, it’s been a lovely experience for me that you picked up on my initial post and then went on to share your own different experiences of the book which has then fed back into my own thinking. Much as I value a retweet etc, this is much more validating.
    I’d like to know more about your digressions on the distinction between an examined life and an ethical one. Look forward to more thought-provoking posts.


    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Anne,
      Thank you for this comment and the more lengthy one on the “Seeking praise” article. I don’t think this conversation is over yet. There is so much more of importance still to talk about. I really appreciate that you recommended the book initially and have engaged in this discussion. I appreciate the challenge to my thinking. There are so many different viewpoints to explore!


  2. Pingback: Seeking praise – Stephen Grosz revisited | Norah Colvin

  3. Norah Post author

    Hi Bec,
    Thanks for your comment.
    I’m glad you were challenged by the suggestion of Simon Longstaff that living a moral life (by blinding following rules) doesn’t necessarily mean one is living an examined ethical life. I too found that very interesting and was tempted to digress in my article, but restrained myself. I think we could have lengthy discussions about the implications of his statement, and just what it may mean to each of us. Bring on the philosophical discourse!


  4. Bec

    Hi Nor, the book sounds very interesting, but in particular I loved the quote you included from New Philosopher. I hadn’t really thought before of the difference between a conventional moral and examined ethical life – it’s such a great division. I’m sure there are many steps on a ‘scale’ of ethical living, but I had always thought of a dichotomy between ethical living and amoral living. I guess this is where the structures of religion, law, and culture play in – provide the template for a conventional (hopefully but not always) moral life, though we have to make sure we examine things ourselves to live a truly ethical life. Thanks for the thought fodder.



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