Elly McDonald


Review: Will Storr – Selfie (2017), Heretics (2013), Will Storr vs The Supernatural (2007)

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22 July 2017

Unexpectedly, Will Storr starts his report by discussing suicide. He’s so on point, so direct, I’m immediately won.

Professor Sophie Scott, Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, University College London, writes: “I’ve never seen such a well-thought-through and argued piece of work as Selfie, really taking ideas around self-esteem back to their philosophical and historical origins – and pulling them to pieces. I loved it.”

The final chapter is headed How to Stay Alive in the Age of Perfectionism. I’ll let you know in c.350 pages’ time.

Selfie_RedOkaaay. Already I want to quote almost every paragraph.

“… it was also at Esalen that the Western self began being lovingly penetrated by narcissism.” I think he means we’re fucked.

26 July 2017

I’m at the penultimate chapter of Selfie, by Will Storr, and am dismayed to find the internet and social media are the manifestations of neoliberal and libertarian individualist ideals.

In this chapter, titled The Digital Self, Will visits Silicon Valley to investigate to what extent the IT set has “internalized the economy of their time, fashioning it into a sense of who they were, who they wanted to be, and how the world ought to work.”

“This vision, of individuals ‘free’ to get along and get ahead by zooming unfettered from job to job, is what’s often known as the ‘gig economy’. It appears, too, in the guise of the ‘zero hours contract’ worker. They’re arrangements in which the responsibility of the employer is minimized, and that of the individual maximized.”


24 October 2017

Heretics: people who persist in beliefs that contradict the orthodoxies.


Some editions of this book have a different title – The Unpersuadables: adventures with the enemies of science. (NB Book is not a dualistic ‘rationality vs irrationality’, ‘science vs fantasy’, ‘reason vs the ridiculous’ tome.)

Will Storr examines the nature of certainty, of absolute conviction. He interviews Creationists, climate change deniers, Holocaust deniers, gurus, alien abductees, crusaders against Satanic sexual abuse, rejecters of conventional medicine and opponents of psychiatry. He investigates the neuroscience underpinning psychological and philosophical models of how belief operates.

Immensely entertaining, informative, and more than a little alarming for anyone whose belief set includes “free will”.

He’s not so concerned to make value judgments on the validity or otherwise of the beliefs, although he’ll generally report his own responses. What he’s interested in is how beliefs are formed and maintained, sometimes in the face of immense opposition and/or what might seem to many compelling evidence discrediting those beliefs. There are chapters where the belief being examined cannot be proved or disproved convincingly.

20 December 2017

From Will Storr vs. The Supernatural, by Will Storr (p.242):

‘This is my book,’ she tells me. ‘It’s poetry. Poems about my life.’

‘Oh, wow,’ I say. I flick it open at a random page. It’s a poem called ‘Depression’.

There’s a small silence. Jacquie is looking at me. I feel a warm puff of embarrassment redden my face. This is too intimate, too soon. I decide to pretend I didn’t notice ‘Depression’. I glance a look at the next poem.


She’s still watching me. I stare at the page. The dog trots out of the room. I listen to its paws clack on the vinyl floor. It runs up the stairs as I pick another page.


The blood in my face runs suddenly hotter. Some wind-chimes somewhere chime. I flick again.

‘I’m Not An Alcoholic.’





‘This looks great,’ I say, closing the book sharply and putting it down on the table next to me.

‘Oh, look,’ I say as my eyes settle on a serendipitous subject-change opportunity. ‘Are those tarot cards?’


‘You know,’ says the [psychiatrist], as I bend to get my coat, ‘human beings have always been desperate to believe in all kinds of supernatural mumbo-jumbo because they are ways of explaining away the most terrifying fact of all. That we are zombies leading meaningless lives.’


‘Yes. Emotions and free will are just an illusion that we have to stop us blowing our brains out.’

I stop and freeze and listen. Dr James the philosopher said that some people have used the fact that we’re not zombies to try and prove that we have souls. But is Dr Mark right? Are we just very sophisticated zombies? If so, it’s not just religion, ghosts and the afterlife that we use as a comfort blanket when faced with the brutal concept of total death. It’s free will and our entire emotional landscape. Could every decision we make, every feeling we feel, every moral conviction we have, our very sense of self, our personality, our ‘soul’, our ‘consciousness’, be just a chimera whipped up by our minds to keep us keeping on?

‘Oh, yes,’ he says, fiddling with a Biro idly. ‘You and I are actually zombies living an automatic life. And we are here for no reason at all.’


Will Storr

Author: Elly McDonald

Australian-born, with English mother, has lived in several Australian cities and in London. Travelled widely. Way way back when, published widely as a poet and short story writer.

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