Culture

‘The Book Of Uninspiring Quotes’ Is The Perfect Fix For Your Annoyingly Upbeat Facebook Feed

Michael Leunig's son, Sunny, is "taking advantage of the growing misery market".

To the excitement of desperately unhappy aunties everywhere, the past decade or so has seen a real boom in self-help material. No longer confined to cheesy posters in finance departments and yoga studios, stock images of good-looking people standing on beaches displaying the ways they’re better than you are now available everywhere via inspirational memes on Facebook and Instagram. Brands are in on the #wellness trend. All our anxieties and frustrations are being neatly channeled into the elaborate lotus flowers of $25 adult colouring books.

These all genuinely help some people. The popularity of colouring books in particular reveals what seams to be a very real connection between the act of colouring and the dissipation of stress. But if you’re too much of a cynic for that, you might instead enjoy a new book from Melbourne creative, Sunny Leunig. The Book Of Uninspiring Quotes (To Complement Your Empty Shell Of An Existence) features all the Papyrus-laden memes, stock photography and distracting activities of the self-help section — but flips them with total glee to acknowledge the fact that life is objectively terrible.

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Woah, Sydney’s new tourism slogan?

“Persistence,” one page reads, atop a sun-drenched image of a man jogging down a country road. “[It’s] making you look like an absolute tosser.”

“Dance like no one is watching!” reads another, alongside a woman flailing happily on a beach. “Only because no one is ever watching you.”

The book offers acerbic observations like this divided into sections on sadness, failure, heartbreak, self-doubt, alienation and “forever being incomplete”. It features real quotes from nihilistic 19th and 20th century philosophers and less real quotes from thought leaders of today (“It says that we should take a right at the lights,” says Steve Jobs, maybe.) It even has the odd colouring-in page!

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“This is Toby, hungover and vomiting into his toilet bowl after last night’s office Christmas party (to which he arrived and left alone).”

“This book is intended to help us smile, get over ourselves, accept our limitations and get on with our beautifully complicated lives,” Leunig writes in the author’s statement. “If it fails, then I am fucking sorry.”

We had a chat to him to expand on that sneakily optimistic premise.

Junkee: I read your book in one sitting which was probably not a good idea.

Sunny Leunig: Oh no.

It was good! I really liked it. But let’s start at the beginning: why did you write it?

I’ve always been into writers like Nietzsche and JD Salinger and Albert Camus — I guess I was one of those teenage guys who was reading existentialist philosophy and being the ‘woe is me’ kind of guy so I thought, why not turn those ideas that shaped (and ruined) my life into something humorous? When I read philosophers like Schopenhauer who are quite nihilistic, I kind of find it funny. I find it funny when he says that “life is some sort of mistake”. There’s some dark humour in that.

I’ve always looked at things which deal with minor key emotions like melancholy… but, you know, I’m trying to intellectualise what is essentially a gift book here.

[Laughs] I think that’s fair! The book kind of has both sides. There’s the funny, meme-y sections which are obviously much more for laughs, and then there are more intellectual elements in these quotes and longer discussions which give everything a little weight. 

I guess the meme-y ones were from seeing so many of those positive affirmations on my Facebook feed. They didn’t really make me feel any better so I subverted them, and kept the stock images and Papyrus font and made something that was a little tongue-in-cheek. But sometimes we do feel down and it takes more than a positive affirmation to bring change in life. Essentially I’m just trying to laugh — and take advantage of the growing misery market, I guess.

Woah. Is the growing misery market a thing that’s happening?

I’m not sure, but if it is this book will be a bestseller.

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Do you think it will beat the adult colouring books?

[Laughs] They’re pretty hard to beat. I’m quietly holding out hope that this will be the greatest footnote since Plato’s Last Days Of Socrates and will hopefully change all of Western thought.

Speaking of the philosophical elements of the book, you are a “magosopher”. You need to tell me about that. 

A magosopher is a cross between a magician and a philosopher. So magosophy is the art of performing magic while disentangling the riddles of our human existence.

Easy.

I do a performance which is based around say, one of Socrates philosophical theories that the unexamined life is not worth living. It’s something I kind of invented and began out of a time which was a little bit difficult in life. Magic and philosophy kind of helped me reconnect with the world, just by doing this with people and talking about life.

I heard you performed for Bob Hawke and U2. Is that for real?

I did a private thing for Bob Hawke on New Years Eve at the Woodford Folk Festival — it was a few other performers and he got up and did a trick with me! He was such a big figure for me, him and Keating. That was pretty nerve-wracking but wonderful at the same time.

I also did an interview with Bono for this documentary series I’m making, and next thing I know I’m getting asked to perform for the band. The drummer actually told me he would shoot me. I mean… he was joking. I made a trick where his hanky disappears and told him when he went back to Dublin it would be under his pillow. He told me that, if it was, he was going to shoot me.

It was nice. Thanks Larry Mullen Jr.

I guess it’s a compliment, right?

I guess so.

Well it was cool to see so many other big musicians like Tim Rogers, Paul Kelly and Gareth Liddiard get involved with the book! Gareth does the foreword and both Rogers and Kelly feature in promo videos. What was their first reaction?

I actually made a calendar before I made the book and Gareth and The Drones really pushed that too. It felt like they could really relate to it, Gareth in particular. I got him to write the foreword because I love his writing, it’s so off-the-wall. I know I needed that to balance out my unimaginative stuff. The reactions have been great.

It’s interesting to see all this work alongside your dad’s too which is somewhat philosophical in its own way. I know you briefly mention your dad in the book, but is that a comparison you invite or is it frustrating?

I used to not enjoy it. But now, I think I may as well embrace it and then people move on. Why hide who you are? If I have a similar artistic sensibility or temperament, then I guess that’s a natural thing.

What does your dad think of the book?

I haven’t shown him actually. When he gets stopped in the street and someone says “excuse me, are you the father of Sunny Leunig?” and they show him the book, maybe then I’ll grab his opinion on it.

How was the process of writing the book? I mean, it seems like a lot of this came from a personal place and it’s purposefully quite sad.

I mean, I hope it’s funny! I hope there’s irreverence in there as well. I’d be writing about the fact there’s deep, inconsolable regret in our lives that we might never recover from… but sometimes you have to embrace that. You have to hope for the best, but expect the worst. It’s not like I’m just a misery guts, but I did have to think of that while writing it.

I started doing this years ago and noticed there was this whole obsession with being happy as an end goal, as if it wasn’t a fleeting thing. I think the tide is changing a little bit with that and I’d also say, there’s a huge difference between being depressed and feeling melancholy. Melancholy is a state which is actually quite active — it urges the creative impulse and can have a reflective quality as well, it’s like when you see a sad movie but it has some beauty in it as well. Depression, on the other hand, is quite deadening. And I’m not trying to be an advocate of that at all.

Absolutely. Any favourite bits?

For some reason I really like “No regrets: just deep inconsolable sorrow buried in a bottomless pit of lost opportunities and shattered dreams”. [Laughs] When people come around saying “I’ve got no regrets” I just think, “fucking bullshit”. We’ve all got regrets in life. Things happen and we don’t need to dwell on them but you’re lying if you don’t acknowledge them. I regret things I say five minutes ago.

Yeah. I think everyone does. 

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You Are Free

The Book Of Uninspiring Quotes is available now via Affirm Press.

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