The truth about self-improvement? It’s cancelled until the world improves | Life and style

Mr Z bounded down the stairs with a package this morning. This happens constantly these days. That, or I open the door to delivery guys and say: “What’s he bought now?” as if we’re living in a sitcom and I’m his grumpy dad. It’s radically unfair, since he’s almost always bought something for someone else: a lightbulb for the complex lamp of an ingrate child, hypoallergenic bedding for a rabbit, a dumpling crimper.

This time it was for me, and it was a book. I flipped to the back cover to look at who’d given the puff quotes. “This … this is chick lit.” I can’t tell you how much disgust I packed into that sentence. “Or, you could have started that sentence with ‘thank you’,” he replied, mildly. “Tha … [nope, sorry, I could not say it] What was it about me that made you think I would read a book like this? You used to give me books about American social policy in the 80s and vampires.” “Yeah, you never read those.” “I liked having them!”

I’ve thought a bit about Lockdown Three, and what lessons I can draw from Lockdown One (I learned nothing in Lockdown Two, except which pubs were doing takeaway hot cider), and I know exactly why he bought it. In 2020, I mainly read schlock. I did about 10 minutes of nostalgia – Big Thoughts from the Olden Days, Hannah Arendt, Susan Sontag – to every 10 hours of potboiler. I tore through the entire works of Ira Levin, long after I realised that the books were sillier than the films they were turned into. (Seriously, Rosemary’s Baby? At least the film is scary; in the book, the scariest bits are the dicey canapes, and the incarnation of evil is light relief from the uninteresting cocktail parties. Sorry, I don’t mean to be unpleasant. I truly enjoyed my Ira Levin months.)

I ploughed methodically through Len Deighton when I already knew who all the spies were, and doggedly attacked every Jilly Cooper, pausing only to mourn that I couldn’t get the kids interested. There was no self-improvement arc. The only thing I learned was how much plot I am capable of forgetting.

I did not successfully turn out any sourdough, go vegan or lay down pickles for the winter. If anything, I abandoned any attempts at dietary discipline I already had: the twice-a-week maximum on toad-in-the-hole, the spasmodic digestion of fruit when I don’t particularly like it. (Mr Z also bought me a contraption where you screw an apple on to a spike, and, as you wind it, it gets cored, peeled and sliced into a spiral. “Why have you bought this? I hate apples.” “You don’t hate apples in particular, you just hate fruit.” “Well, yes! I hate fruit, it’s pointless … ooh, would you look at that. It’s perfectly peeled and cored, and sliced into a delightful spiral.”)

I met a woman, the first time around, who was using lockdown to introduce the entire family to the canon of Spanish cinema, and thought: “That’s a good idea,” then didn’t do it. I read a story about a man who’d befriended a murder of crows by leaving them regular food gifts, and accidentally built himself an army of crow bodyguards that dive-bombed his neighbours if they came into his garden. His main concern was whether he would be legally liable if a neighbour got hurt, so I can’t say he was my sort of person. But, sure, it’s regrettable when you have months of untenanted time and not a single new bond with the animal kingdom to show for it.

To this relatively new wisdom about bettering myself, and its likelihood, I can add a life’s worth of knowledge about new year resolutions: almost in the act of writing them down, you more or less guarantee that you’re not going to do them. It’s probably a decade since I even bothered. I swapped the tradition in favour of the whole family writing down predictions for each other over the year ahead, then sealing them in a tin, for the delight of the following New Year’s Eve. The kids started wishing awful things upon each other. “I think H will join a death cult.” “I think TJ will become allergic to air.” That, too, was discontinued.

Instead, a series of unresolutions: I probably won’t read much improving literature until the world improves; I shall not have a great idea for a stunning new project until there is a believable future to project it into; I won’t eat a ton of fruit, though these cool apples have to be seen to be believed; I will not grow a sourdough starter, but I can imagine turning my hand to more regular scones; I do not have the patience to hand-feed a squirrel, but my daughter does, and she is essentially me; I already forgot to plant tulips in time; I may, very occasionally, consider saying: “Thank you.”

The book is great, by the way.

• Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist.

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