How To Be A Person In The World & Other Great Dear Polly Advice

Image: Penguin Random House.
More likely than not, you're familiar with Dear Abby, the advice column that began its run in 1956 and has grown to become the most widely syndicated franchise of its kind to date. Founded by Pauline Phillips (nom de plume Abigail Van Buren) and handed down to her daughter, Jeanne, in 2002, Dear Abby has long been known for its succinct, practical life advice, as well as for dropping a sassy zinger every now and again to keep things interesting.

While Dear Abby has doubtlessly helped countless people solve their everyday problems over the years, what it has not done — and has never aimed to do — is elevate advice-giving to an art form. That's where Heather Havrilesky comes in.

Havrilesky is the writer behind Dear Polly, New York magazine's answer to Dear Abby, which takes the whole advice racket to a new level, by turning what could be no-nonsense quippy responses into emotionally nuanced, essayistic meditations on what it means to be a person in the world today. In fact, that's the title of Havrilesky's new book, a collection of previously unpublished Dear Polly columns plus a few fan favorites from over the years: How to Be a Person in the World, out from Penguin on July 12.

The essays in How to Be range from deeply self-aware and reflective to acidic with a side of snark — the latter especially when it's clear that the advice-seeker is hoping to validate what he or she already knows to be bad behavior. Take, for example, the person who wrote to Polly under the pseudonym "Cheating Gauntlet Man" and wanted to know if she thought it would be suitable to have an affair if it meant keeping his marriage intact long-term. "Cheating is called cheating for a reason," Havrilesky begins. "The issue on the table is honesty, not sex." That line perfectly encapsulates the sort of straight talk you get from a Dear Polly column. But the author's special skill is that — even when she's poking holes in a personal rationalization — she also refrains from being judgmental and even relays moments from her own life, in order to help illustrate the point she's trying to make and where it's coming from.

Being a person means wading through the gray area, and unlike Dear Abby, Havrilesky doesn't even try to give off the impression that she has an objective view.

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Of course, sex and relationships are far from the only subjects that Havrilesky tackles. There's a certain existential thread to many of the letters she chooses to respond to. Her answers to questions about pursuing a passion, quitting a job, letting go of a toxic relationship, and struggling with body image tend toward the philosophical and can often be pared down to following your heart, letting go of things that don't serve you, and remembering that life is not a dress rehearsal, so you better make this round count.

But my favorite piece from How to Be emerges from an essay written in response to a person who calls herself "Career or Baby." At 27, this woman is trying to decide whether or not she should give up her job at a bank to have a child — if this is the right time, if there is a right time, if it's okay to choose starting a family over her career goals for the time being. Havrilesky banishes the idea that women necessarily need to think about those two things diametrically, asserting that it's okay to just decide to have it all. "Choose both," she writes. "Choose the career, AND choose the baby. Don't put off one for the other. Choose both now and later, and accept that you'll be juggling for years no matter what you do.

"Why not juggle things you love? Sure, you'll have to work hard and make some sacrifices. Accept it and move forward," she adds.

This is just one of many pieces of widely applicable wisdom that Havrilesky imparts in How to Be a Person. But, in my opinion, it's one of the best — because it's a reminder that not everything is either/or, and that the decisions we make about how to lead our lives aren't black and white. Being a person means wading through the gray area, and unlike Dear Abby, Havrilesky doesn't even try to give off the impression that she has an objective view. She's refreshingly human, just like the people who seek her insights. You can feel the heart in how she responds, and that mark of humanity makes her advice memorable — and worth following.

How to Be a Person: Ask Polly's Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life was released July 12, 2016.
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