Review by Tess Tabak
A quick yes or no question: Does someone calling themselves a “community architect” make you want to punch things?
If yes, this is not the book for you.
Before anyone accuses me of being cynical, let me say that I wanted to like this book. I actually enjoy reading self help / new agey stuff. But I want them to either tell me something I didn’t know, or at least tell me something I did know in a new way. Most of the information in Radha Agrawal’s Belong: Find Your People, Create Community, and Live a More Connected Life is fairly common knowledge (don’t we all know by now that Facebook is not a substitute for in-person contact?). The exercises feel half-assed – at one point she says, “If you need ideas, Google it.” The amount of doodles and blank journal pages in the book make me think that Agrawal came up about 25% short on the page count, and they went with filler instead of more content.
Worse than that, Agrawal clearly has never experienced, and does not have a deep understanding of, what it truly means to feel alone and friendless. Good for her, but reading this book from such a state is akin to a guide on the Heimlich maneuver that begins, “First, take a deep breath.” What is someone truly friendless supposed to do with advice like “make sure you get 5 hugs a day”?
On the other hand, if you were wondering whether you’re the right type of person for Daybreaker, an early morning dance party/yoga class that Agrawal founded, this is the book for you. (There’s a helpful step-by-step guide!) I’m not saying that this book is secretly an ad for Daybreaker, but she spends as much time on its selling points as on practical advice for making friends.
My personal pet peeve for self help books, Agrawal offers mostly platitudes and common sense, presented in a smug way as if she’s the brilliant person who thought it up. Really? Making friends is as easy as attending five meetup.com groups? I had no idea! Agrawal offers little tangible advice on how to make and keep friends beyond putting yourself in a position to meet people (obviously, attending Daybreaker is on the list). The type of person so socially clueless or depressed to need such simple advice is unlikely to be able to make much use of it. For a book on how to connect it makes a lot of assumptions of the reader; for one, she assumes the reader already has at least a few friends to start with. Perhaps Agrawai truly thinks everyone is like herself and can easily fall into friendships, but I can’t imagine this book not making the depressed even more depressed.
Some of Agrawal’s advice is outright terrible. If you move to an area where you don’t know anyone, she recommends buying as much food and drink as you can and inviting loose acquaintances over. This is such a spectacularly bad idea it was literally the plot of a Crazy Ex-Girlfriend episode. It’s a great way to come across as desperate and needy, not to mention making “friends” who are using you for free food.
Towards the second half of the book, Agrawal offers more practical advice for building community (like to ditch the TV in your living room and arrange seating for better eye contact), but again, it’s all couched in terms of how great Daybreaker is. She also has an annoying habit of assigning cutesy nicknames to common ideas, as if she invented them. In-person friends are “five sense friends” (FSFs), insecurity is #FOBLO (Fear of Being Left Out), and so on. I think she has some interesting things to say, but it’s so buried in fluff, and presented in such an irritating way, that by the time I got to it I had lost all patience for Agrawal’s message.
Also, a note of warning – if you saw this book and thought “This would be the perfect gift for my hippie-dippie friend!”, only do that if you’re really secure in the friendship. Agrawal includes an entire chapter on how to ditch friends that aren’t on the same “wavelength” as you.
I’m sure Radha Agrawal is a really interesting and cool person, and I’m glad for her that she has never had to answer the question “What would you do if you didn’t even have one friend?” But that easy-breezy optimism and thoughtlessness make this book a failure.
Belong was released September 4, 2018 from Workman.
The Furious Gazelle received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.