Phosphorescence | Julia Baird #AWWessays

There are few things as startling as encountering an unearthly glow in the wild.

Confession one: this book was a chore to read.

Confession two: for the past week I have been trying to read three books that were a chore to read. Why, I hear you ask?

Confession three: I made myself finish one, but I have decided to abandon the other two.

Sometimes a book does not work. It could be bad timing or mood or tiredness or other stuff going on in one’s life. Or sometimes a book is just not for you. No matter what other people say about it, or love about it or admire about it, it could be that, for you, none of those things matter.

Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark by Julia Baird was the other abandoned book.

It has taken me a ridiculous amount of time to read just seven chapters plus a prelude.

Phosphorescence is almost beyond beautiful with it’s luminous, tactile hardcover design, but I found the insides a little too soft my liking. I wanted to like it. I thought it might be the kind of book that I would underline every second sentence and stop to savour wise words or sound advice. I was expecting wow and wonder but instead I kept feeling underwhelmed.

I would read one chapter and put it down for 2 months, then I’d try another one only to put it aside for another month. It was chapter six and nine months later, before I finally found an essay that resonated, The Activist’s Attic.

Recording, writing, collating, telling our life stories and archiving those stories is something dear to my heart. Anyone interested in the historical record knows that most of our history has been written, recorded and preserved by powerful white men. Minority voices and females stories have not been archived in anywhere near the numbers or with the same care. Baird doesn’t really have a solution for this, except to preserve her own documents of her activist past. The failures as well as the successes. And to encourage us to do the same.

Baird’s stated aim was to find ‘what makes people shine‘ and to explore the age-old concept we all grapple with at different times – ‘How do we make sense of this life we are living? Is there are purpose?’ Maybe I simply no longer need these kind of books like I once did. I’m in the happy place of having worked out a lot of that young adult angst (it took me long enough!) and the mid-life phases have left me fairly unscathed. When I get to a life and death moment, like Baird did, that may all change again. But for now, I do not need another book reminding me to live now, savour the moment, take notice of what’s around me, embrace doubt, be comfortable in my own skin and to cherish the ones I love, no matter how beautiful the cover.


Phosphorescence. Now that’s a word to lift your hat to … to find that phosphorescence, that light within, that’s the genius behind poetry …

Emily Dickinson


  • Winner, Non-Fiction Category, Indie Book Awards 2021
  • Longlist, Stella Prize, 2021

Phosphorescence Poetry Reading:

  • Researching the Dickinson quote led me to the Emily Dickinson Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts. They host a monthly Phosphorescence Poetry Reading event. I’ve signed up for the April one in the hope that the time difference works in my favour.
Book: Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark | Julia Baird
ISBN: 9781460710890
Imprint4th Estate
Publication Date: 23rd March 2020
Format: Hardback

18 thoughts on “Phosphorescence | Julia Baird #AWWessays

  1. I bought this book when it first came out purely on the cover design (shallow, me?), but for some reason I’ve not been inclined to read it. I think you have articulated why I’ve been so reluctant… the contents are a bit “soft”. I have classified it as “self help” and I don’t read those kinds of books. Is that how you would classify it?


    1. I can only base my opinion on a handful of chapters, plus glancing into a few others towards the end to see if it was more of the same, all the way through, Kim. I think it was a case of self-help for Baird, more than self-help for me. More memoir & conversational in tone.

      But I have read reviews by people during lockdown that found this book more inspiring. And I can see how during difficult times, books like this can be comforting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This book wasn’t for me, either. I like your explanation of having grown out of young adult angst, suspect that has happened to me too, as once upon I time I fed on self-help/inspirational-type books.


    1. Curiously, I was looking at the (small) shelf I have where my old self-help type books are lined up, and thinking it would be the next shelf that needed a declutter and shelf talk post. I kept them in case I needed them again, but I haven’t needed to look in any of them for over 15 yrs. It’s time.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I admit I read fiction to understand at least a little more about other people. But other people’s ideas about how and why to live life? I have not the slightest interest. You get up in the morning. Time passes. What else is there to know?


    1. I have reached that point too Bill. Certainly now that the child-rearing age is behind us, life is much more straight forward and calmer (inside and out!)


    1. I think it would have been more interesting if it had focused on being a memoir. As Bill said above “other people’s ideas about how and why to live life? I have not the slightest interest.” But how and why they chose to live the life they led, can be interesting.


    1. I feel like I’ve been avoiding quite a few books the past couple of weeks, so it was liberating to finally let them go.
      It took three or four goes to find a book that I could actually settle to though, in this mood I’m currently in. Turns out I needed an easy-to-read, cosy crime (and a long morning tea with a girl friend).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Not for me either.
    I used to like memoir when it was about the life of someone interesting, but I’m not interested in these ‘meandering through the soul’ versions of memoir (or the addiction ones, or the recovering from trauma ones). I do not agree that everyone’s story is equally interesting or worthwhile for others to read about: much of what I understand this book to be about I know first-hand from friends who’ve been through something similar.
    I’m beginning to form a theory that years of reading YA at school has resulted in a large pack of readers who want things to be ‘relatable’ (because that, apparently, is one of the key criteria for YA novels). Maybe that accounts for the flood of these memoirs in the marketplace.
    I’m not quite with Bill on ‘other people’s ideas about how and why to live life’… Half-baked philosophy from mid-lifers, no, that’s not for me either, but I am interested in the ideas of professional modern philosophers such as Peter Singer and Damon Young.


    1. Interesting theory about YA novels. I’ve noticed that so many of them only have other YA’s as characters. The few I’ve actually enjoyed reading were the odd ones with characters spanning the generations. But I’m a long way from being the target audience these days.


  5. I am not familiar with this book, but I recognise the feeling you describe when you are not that enthusiastic going back to a book. I have recently left two books unread, after trying a couple of times. Some books just are not your cup of tea and it is better to leave them. So many books out there. The other day I gave up (for the second time) of ‘The Book Thief’. A book that has received such praise, but I am not able to go through even 30 pages. You just have to realise that all books are not for you. It takes a little bit of time for me to get over leaving a book, but afterwards it feels fine.


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