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All Things Are Too Small

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This is a collection of reasonably well written pieces. There are some fine lines, a few well-conceived set pieces, and a fair share of perceptive and insightful observations. That said, try as I might I found neither the essay subjects nor the author's enthusiasms compelling enough to fully arouse or entirely engage and hold my curiosity and attention. As a consequence, it doesn't seem fair to write much more of a review, apart from encouraging inquisitive readers to give the book a try.

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All Things Are Too Small was intriguing as hell and made me think brand new thoughts about the recent 5-8 years of minimalism. Being someone with ADHD means that I never live minimally in my head, so sometimes I do try and reduce the impact of my surroundings on my internal brain working. I've recently been thinking more about how perhaps I could live more fully in my own 'big thoughts", and these essays were a good argument for that.

I will confess to not finishing all the essays, but I want to be clear that I WILL. The reason that I couldn't finish them was simply because I thought I was smart, but I'm not as smart as I thought, because these bad boys are DENSE, and they require me to read them aloud to myself, to internalize the complex writing style. I typically take longer to get through non-fiction books, but this took longer then normal but was really engaging despite my personal brain slowness.

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I've been a reader of Becca Rothfeld's criticism for years, and I've almost always found her arguments--even those with which I strongly disagree--soundly made. I was happy, then, to learn that she was publishing a book-length collection, and am immensely grateful to Netgalley for the opportunity to read it. Rothfeld takes on a wide range of topics in this volume, and I enjoyed the sense I had while reading that she chose subjects that truly interested or piqued her rather than just ones she thought would be commercially successful. Compared to her other work, however, Rothfeld is not in top form in some of these essays. She's known in some circles as a "hater" critic, queen of take-downs. That's never much bothered me, because she usually justifies any "negative" criticisms she expresses well. Not so here. Throughout this collection, I observed a Rothfeld so sure she's right that she doesn't feel compelled to prove it to us, and that's not how good criticism works.

Rothfeld is at her best when she's writing in her own voice, rather than extensively quoting others either to agree with little additive commentary or to argue the opposite without much actual...argument. Writing as Becca, she combines personal narrative with critical analysis to intimate and honest effect. In this mode, Rothfeld displays rich insights both from the texts she's chosen to explore and from her own lived experience. The writing is strong--often beautiful--throughout, Rothfeld is a dynamic writer and thinker, and it's everywhere on display here. Some of the essays just needed a bit more work to be successfully persuasive. There's a periodic lack of cohesion that keeps this work from being the masterpiece I know Rothfeld is capable of. Still, as a freshman effort, it's impressive, and I believe almost anyone would find plenty of fodder to provoke prolonged thought here. I look forward to continue reading Rothfeld's work.

3.5 stars

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I adore this book. I love all of it excesses as it applauds excess. Each essay is a new way to look like why we should want more instead of wanting less, or wanting the same as everybody else. It's just so refreshing to read something that so unabashedly loves what it loves. Rothfeld writes with confidence about everything"movies, books, culture, feminism, eroticism, etc. Her arguments are never boring. I got to bathe in Edna St. Vincent Millay and W.H. Auden in the first essay. I mean, how wonderful is that? This book also reminded me to question what I've been told to love but have never really been able to love. Decluttering is awful. Maximalism is the only flag I'll wave. I think if you are person with taste, who cares, who loves art, and hates to be bored, this is the book for you. And even if this isn't the book for you, at least you have an opinion! I think Rothfeld would appreciate that impassioned truth more than your indifference.

Thank you NetGalley for the digital ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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I’ve been a fan of the critic Becca Rothfeld’s writing for a little while now, and although on her website she describes herself as “a (lapsed?) philosopher,” I’m not sure the qualifier is necessary—she writes like a philosopher. And I mean she writes like a good one; it’s not about density and it’s not about the logical appraisement and presentation of arguments (although Rothfeld is perfectly capable of both of these things). Instead I think it’s something to do with the humility and seriousness with which she treats her subject matter, from the somewhat menacing background implications of modern-day cure-alls like decluttering and meditation to the celebration of sex as a kind of body horror via the early films of David Cronenberg.

All Things Are Too Small is a suite of twelve essays, most of them concerned in some shape or form with indulgence. The title and epigraph come from a thirteenth-century poem by the mystic Hadejwich, who says, in translation by Jane Hirshfield: “All things / are too small / to hold me.” And Rothfeld relates this to humanity writ large; the essence of the human is a kind of too-muchness, or a yearning for too-muchness.

A recurrent theme is the misapplication of egalitarianism, which is just another way of disallowing excess: “Justice (which, for Rawls, involves stringent egalitarianism) is a virtue of social institutions—meaning it is not a virtue of other sorts of things, just as truth is a virtue of systems of thought but certainly not of fictions. In particular, justice is not a virtue of romantic relationships, or aesthetic culture, or interior decor, none of which admit of equalization.” Indeed, one of the points of contact Rothfeld draws between aesthetic culture, love, and sex, is that they’re inimical to egalitarianism.

Seriousness—as in the seriousness with which Rothfeld takes art—requires judgment, and the unabashed willingness to rank some things above others (a subject of the first essay in the book) is one of the joys of reading her work. Meaningful aesthetic experience requires hierarchy—that some art is better than others—and meaningful erotic experience requires favoritism. “The kind of creatures for whom love and art mean anything at all are the kind with biases and aversions.”
I think what Rothfeld rails against most vehemently is the kinds of systems of thought that aim to flatten experience, fill in the valleys and carve out the peaks. Much of the book is concerned with the precarity of erotic experience. The crowning jewel is the longest essay in the book, “Only Mercy,” about post-consent sexuality, the fear being that reducing human sexuality to the notion of consent—of mere willingness—erases the potentially ecstatic and transformative dimension sex can have. “What is at stake in erotic life, then, is whether human beings can ever interact without the armor of a template or the protection of precedent.”

All of this speaks to the force of Rothfeld’s imagination and critical abilities, but the fact is a great deal of the pleasure of All Things Are Too Small comes from the writing, which can be as rapturous as the subject matter it addresses. Speaking about Eric Rohmer’s Six Moral Tales, Rothfeld writes: “If I love the Moral Tales, it is not because I approve of their diffident wives or their dutiful endings: it is because they pay apt homage to those sublime and singular instants when a normal interaction lifts off into a gorgeous rapport, like a plane pushing up off the ground.”

That’s one of the things I love the most about the book—the willingness to engage rigorously with aspects of life that might be considered frivolous, namely with realm of erotic experience (as distinct from romantic love per se). Because despite what we might think there’s nothing frivolous about the moment of falling for another person, as the protagonists do in Rohmer’s Moral Tales; to open oneself up to such things is to open oneself up to transfiguration.

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Thanks to the publisher for access to this book. I was very excited to get this and enjoyed it for the most part, though found the quality to be a bit uneven.

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Thank you to NetGalley and Henry Holt & Co. for the advanced copy! The following is my honest review:

In her debut essay collection, Rothfeld pushes back against the current cultural norms of restraint, balance, and modesty by extolling the virtues of excess and abandon. Topics vary widely, from aesthetics to consent, Marie Kondo to Sally Rooney, but underlying each is an urge to be more, more, more.

Rothfeld’s criticism is nothing short of refreshing. When we’re flooded with messages to divest ourselves of our earthly belongings and approach love with cold, calculated caution, it’s a thrill to read essays that praise giving in to our basest desires and luxuriating in excess. I’ve suspected for a little while that, post-pandemic, we’re going to move away from minimalist culture, and Rothfeld demonstrates why its death can’t come soon enough.

More importantly, I appreciate a writer willing to take risks and state an unpopular perspective—Rothfeld argues, for example, that perhaps Sally Rooney is not as groundbreaking a writer as she’s made out to be (a “hot take” with which I’d agree), and that preoccupation with sexual consent limits playfulness and experimentation in the bedroom. (To be clear, Rothfeld is not advocating for a disposal of consent, but rather a redefining of it.) It sometimes feels these days that every writer with any sort of visibility is saying the same things, afraid to express authenticity lest it lead to internet hate; I’m overjoyed to know Rothfeld is not among this group.

Though these essays are critical rather than personal, I didn’t find them unapproachable, and I enjoyed Rothfeld’s smartly sassy style. She weaves in just enough personal anecdotes to prevent the essays from sounding dry or academic, but not so many that they detour into memoir. For Rothfeld’s voice alone, I’ll continue to seek out her work.

My criticisms of the collection are minor: namely, that most of Rothfeld’s references are fairly archaic or obscure, which occasionally led to some passages confusing me before I researched further. I don’t mind doing a little extra work while reading, and am myself a fan of classic cinema and mystical literature, but I’d love to have seen Rothfeld argue against modern values with more modern sources.

In short, if you’re a fan of thoughtful, yet stylish cultural criticism, or simply have had your fill of minimalism and reticence, this collection is a must read.

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rothfeld is many things — a sharp stylist, incisive skeptic, aesthetically attuned philosopher — but above all else (as is the nature of the critic), she is a delightful hater. i could only hope to someday be able to so snappily snobby, so academically argumentative in dispensing my own censoriousness. such brutal takedowns of sally rooney and mindfulness could not have passably been regarded as fair debates if not buoyed by rothfeld's sumptuous prose and clear-eyed purview — only k-ming chang could surpass her whip-smart deployment of alliteration.

i usually find it difficult to slog through essay collections, even if i do find them interesting, so i was surprised when i sped through all things are too small in the matter of a week, especially given its relative lengthiness. but perhaps the dynamism of rothfeld's style, or the book's contrarian subject matter, or its topicality to my own academic studies made it all the more traversable. i do, however, understand why some have felt less than enamored by the book — at times, there's an awful lot of work assigned to the reader to follow rothfeld's thread, and even more so to agree with her. i'd find it difficult to imagine someone who is not squarely in rothfeld's intellectual milieu to be convinced by her work, given that her criticism is at times so acerbic, her references so wide-ranging, her stylistic idiosyncrasies so fine-tuned. the effusiveness of her writing can also at times appear to meander from the marketed focus on excess — though i will say there appears to be a huge discrepancy between marketing intention and impact, to which i would rather berate the publisher than the writer.

regardless, all things are too small was for me superbly entertaining and bitingly thought-provoking, even if at times not wholly cohesive and at others even overly contemptuous (this coming from someone who thought she was a world-class hater until encountering this book). i found rothfeld's connections from her arguments to her personal life especially compelling and her purely academic works less persuasive, though perhaps that says more about me. anyway, i will be rushing to put norman rush's mating on my tbr, and am happy to say that the book has opened up a new genre of enjoyment i previously was closed off to. much thanks to netgalley and the publisher for the eARC in exchange for a review!

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In the final sequence of Claire Denis’ film Beau Travail, the main character, a disgraced French Legionnaire, makes his bed with military precision. He lies down atop the sheets, shirtless, holding a handgun that we assume will be used shortly. As he lies there, tense but still, the camera pans over to his bicep, where a vein throbs. Then—a cut. Galoup is back in the club in Djibouti, in front of the sparkly, mirrored wall, dressed to kill. “The Rhythm of the Night” comes in loud. Galoup (Denis Lavant) smokes his cigarette and begins to move, feeling out his body and the rhythm. His dance starts tentative then explodes. He’s spinning, swinging his arms, doing crazy footwork. He reins himself in then lets loose again, even more, diving, windmilling, eventually rolling on the floor, completely beside himself. This is his soul, his exuberant beating heart fighting to find outward expression in a man who has been squeezed into absolute control by military discipline. In these final frames the film shows us the incommensurable dimensions of the hugeness of our feelings and the meager means we have of expressing them.

In the twelve essays in this forthcoming release (out next week), Washington Post nonfiction book critic becca rothfeld explores precisely this dilemma, making the case that, as the title of the second chapter says, “More is More.” Across a broad spectrum of topics, she pushes back against the numerous forces in our society dedicated to convincing people to accept smaller, diminished lives. In the first piece, which functions as an introduction and thesis, she argues that the fundamental human experience is a yearning for things that outstrip possibility—ecstatic experiences, encounters with pure beauty, expressions of love beyond physical limitations—and that the feeling of this acute, irremediable lack is intentionally squashed by a society in the thrall of economically efficient moralizing minimalism. As she puts it:

Plates, cups, books, bodies, and all the rest are too small, not contingently, but constitutionally. There is no way around the sense, lodged hard in the throat, that the greatest human longings exceed any possible fulfillment. To want something with sufficient fervor is to want it beyond the possibility of ever getting enough of it. Is it this longing, phenomenologically keen enough to strike some of us as fact, that has led religious thinkers to posit the existence of eternity, the logic being that we seem to need it? Desire is as good a guide to truth as anything else, but until eternity arrives, we will have to find somewhere to fit our appetites. One way to proceed is to shrink them—first by making concessions to smallness, then by framing contraction as wisdom or virtue. This is the minimalist tack, and these days, it is on the rise. At every turn, we are inundated with exhortations to smallness: short sentences stitched into short books, professional declutterers who tell us to trash our possessions, meditation “practices” that promise to clear the mind of thought and other detritus, and nostalgic campaigns for sexual restraint. These adventures in parsimony each make their own particular mistakes, but they also share a central failing. There is nothing admirable in laboring to love a world as unlike heaven as possible. All things are too small, but some things are less small than others. Even if paucity is inevitable, we can still fight emptiness with fullness.

Part of the solution, she notes, rests in the political realm. We could live in a world with more art made by more people, we could embark on richer love lives, we could have more time, if we improved the material conditions of most people’s lives. Poverty is a moral scandal of the highest order that could be solved tomorrow if only our leaders had the will.

But more than policy prescriptions Rothfeld is interested in refuting the logic of the minimizers, putting forward a vision of more, and exploring the outer edges of experience.

It turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, the place to look for possibilities beyond the mundane is art rather than reality. In chapter four, “The Flesh, It Makes You Crazy,” Rothfeld uses David Cronenberg’s films Shivers, Rabid, and The Fly to consider the possibilities of transformation and its erotic dimension, weaving in additional threads about the overwhelming attraction she felt to her eventual husband and a discussion of how a sufficiently transformative experience defeats the logic of classical decision theory. Another essay discusses serial killer fiction and the dynamic of seduction between the profiler trying to get in the killer’s head and the killer’s pornographic impulse to continue reenacting the same event over and over again, following Sontag’s formulation that porn is defined by its plotlessness (the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter in the show Hannibal being the archetypical example). Others include the urge toward degradation as depicted in Secretary, identification with the inaccessible other in Bergman’s Persona, and Eric Rohmer’s exquisite films of unrequited passion.

As it should be clear, a large part of this book is devoted to our experiences of sexual attraction, desire, and our bodies. Reading Rothfeld’s admirably revealing discussions of her own physical cravings and satisfactions, it dawned on me just how little I’ve read that takes this part of life seriously and engages with it in a critical and revealing manner. I imagine it’s very hard to write in this mode on this topic—it requires a supreme lack of embarrassment and a deft conceptual hand to keep these squishy ideas from wriggling away at every turn. She succeeds on both counts, the personal material always relevant and raw and the analysis rigorous and robust.

I loved the dual-track essay that pairs a takedown of Marie Kondo-style decluttering books with the current crop of wispy “fragment novels” whose plots and characters have been decluttered to the point of emptiness. Describing how these books rely on formulations that tell you about habitual parts of the characters’ lives rather than showing them, she writes:

Why go to the trouble of actually enacting repetitions—repeatedly describing someone lying next to someone else at night, repeatedly taking note of the trash on the sidewalk—when it is faster and cleaner to summarize? Why finish sentences when you can wave at their conclusions? [...] After all, why think when you can mimic thinking? And why write a novel when you can meditate on the difficulty of writing a novel?

The showstopper piece is chapter nine, “Only Mercy.” In it Rothfeld considers an ethic for good sex that goes beyond the consent principle to something more comprehensive. She does so by working through several recent books on the topic written from a conservative perspective. Somehow these books argue that because the consent standard is too paltry, instead of developing new standards, we must roll back the sexual revolution and retvrn to a world where sex before marriage is unthinkable. This is the longest chapter in the book but it never drags because Rothfeld is so funny as she picks apart these books’ failings, making it clear in the process just how identical they are. When you asks, “What does sex represent to these people, does it have a dimension beyond the friction of two bodies?”, she quotes a bizarre definition from Wendell Berry, who claims that “sexual love is the force that connects us [...] to the fertility of the world, to farming and the care of animals.” Every time after this she has to characterize these neo-puritans’ beliefs she works in a new joke about the involvement of livestock that never failed to make me laugh.

I could go on. I loved every one of the twelve essays on offer here but I can’t talk about all of them. Even the one that dragged for me the most—on mindfulness—is still a great read. I can’t emphasize enough how much Rothfeld’s writing is both very very smart and very very readable. Highly recommended.

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Read this as you would read a book of short stories- one at a time, maybe one a day. It's a delightful collection that admittedly occasionally wanders too far into philosophy but it's also made me smile more than once. The Marie Kondo-ing of literature made me laugh out loud (where has plot gone?). Thanks to Netgalley for the ARC.

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Elegant, lush and beautiful, All Things Are Too Small is a criticism on our cultures love of equality and minimalism. Rothfeld creates beautiful essays encouraging us as consumers to give into our love of all things whole heartedly without worry about equality or heavy mindedness.

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The first essay in the collection is so interesting and beautifully written. I liked the second as well. From there, I got less and less interested.

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This is an objectively well written book, but it was not the right choice for me. I found the pacing to be slow, and the topics belabored. I did enjoy the author's perspective and commentary, I just think this could have been an article.

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The debate over the proper relationship between art and politics is an old and persistent one, yet it dons new clothes as cultural trends shift. It's hard to see clearly what a certain debate looks like in your own time since it often blends so well into the same cultural landscape that you're a part of, but Becca Rothfeld's critical powers allow her to point out aspects of our time and our discussions about art that go unnoticed by the rest of us. The connections that Rothfeld draws between Marie Kondo–style minimalism, for instance, and puritanism are more than insightful or provocative; they're necessary. While this book is partly a critique of the urge to hold art to standards of equality and democracy, Rothfeld is hardly making a conservative argument. Rather, she is asking progressive-minded people to reconsider their approach to art and culture, to be more excessive and maximalist and human.

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I don’t really have anything nice to say about this book. Reading it felt like a college exercise and it was so academic, dry and uninteresting. Essays should be engaging and interesting, not make you want to poke your eyes out.

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This is philosophy for the internet age! I didn't realize at first, but as I read my expectations changed. I loved gems like "art is a daughter of freedom." Other sentences I had to read and re-read (of course I knew what she meant by "Economic justice is a prerequisite for excess, but not in itself excessive"). Thanks for the arc. A good read, I would recommend!

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ALL THINGS ARE TOO SMALL is a collection of philosophy essays by Washington Post nonfiction book review editor Becca Rothfeld who also writes for other places. personally, I loved her reviews of GLOSSY (positive) and HOW TO THINK LIKE A WOMAN (negative and fascinating). it’s refreshing to read the kind of work that I aspire to write by someone who’s way better at it.
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ALL THINGS ARE TOO SMALL is GREAT for many reasons. essay topics range from traditional philosophy to sex to Sally Rooney. it’s the kind of writing that makes you want to write, or at least think.
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while reading, I kept thinking about it modeling “how to think like a woman” in contrast to the other writer who writes straightforwardly about it. I appreciate how BR integrates her own perspective. for example, she doesn’t need to inform us that she read Fifty Shades like every female between 15 & 75 in 2012- she casually drops it as a comparison to Sally Rooney in a critique of normal characters in fiction.
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all essays were about various things being too small. But some start smaller than others. her chapter that discusses being able to eat around men starts out very small (I personally would not decide not to eat while on a romantic excursion). in another chapter she mentions that emails are easy to write, but THEY ARE NOT FOR ME. the subjectivity of these starting points fascinates me. even when I disagreed, they were well-written & helped me think.
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a few passages throughout the book came across as over-written, but in doing so remained “in praise of excess,” & they’re balanced by beautiful, moving passages.
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notable quotation: “a good conversation still involves variation. it never settles into sameness or boredom or the monotony of canned responses. it never rests in one place for long. it is always hurtling ahead into the next room. for when we have no rooms left to enter, no intellectual dramas left to resolve, no care left to convey, no questions left to answer, no quips left to volley back like balls, our love has come to a close.”

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I've enjoyed Becca Rothfeld's criticism and essays in the past, so I was excited to read her debut essay collection. I liked her essay "Ladies in Waiting" (originally published in the Hedgehog Review) the most. I also liked her chapter on minimalism and the Marie Kondo-ization of literature – the transfiguration of the novel into "a folder of orphaned pages, a compendium of blurb-sized missives not unlike a Twitter feed."

Overall, though, the collection seemed thinly held together. Like many of the readers who might be drawn to this book for its author, I'd already read a good number of the essays, and I felt somewhat misled by its marketing. I thought we were actually going to get "Essays in Praise of Excess." Instead, we got a bunch of Becca Rothfeld's viral hits ("viral" in the academic, academic-adjacent, and wannabe-academic Twitter sense), many of which loosely share a theme of dunking on minimalism, or pseudo-egalitarianism, or whatever... I was really surprised by the introduction/chapter one, which felt incredibly hand-wavy and perfunctory, and I suspect it's because Rothfeld was tasked with writing something to tie these essays together in a way that would be marketable. I wish we'd either something either more cohesive or more accurately marketed!

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This collection was up and down in quality. I also could not find a common thread throughout. Oddly disjointed.

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Essays touting the joys of excess and capitalism... I think. Honestly, I was not in the right frame of mind when I tried to read this collection of essays, and stopped shortly after the first few pages as I was having trouble making sense of what the author was trying to say. Fairly good rating on Goodreads, overall, so I may give this collection a try at another time.

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