On Not Being Someone Else: Tales of Our Unled Lives

Andrew H. Miller (Author)


A captivating book about the emotional and literary power of the lives we might have lived had our chances or choices been different.

We each live one life, formed by paths taken and untaken. Choosing a job, getting married, deciding on a place to live or whether to have children--every decision precludes another. But what if you'd gone the other way? It can be a seductive thought, even a haunting one.

Andrew H. Miller illuminates this theme of modern culture: the allure of the alternate self. From Robert Frost to Sharon Olds, Virginia Woolf to Ian McEwan, Jane Hirshfield to Carl Dennis, storytellers of every stripe write of the lives we didn't have. What forces encourage us to think this way about ourselves, and to identify with fictional and poetic voices speaking from the shadows of what might have been? Not only poets and novelists, but psychologists and philosophers have much to say on this question. Miller finds wisdom in all these sources, revealing the beauty, the power, and the struggle of our unled lives.

In an elegant and provocative rumination, he lingers with other selves, listening to what they say. Peering down the path not taken can be frightening, but it has its rewards. On Not Being Someone Else offers the balm that when we confront our imaginary selves, we discover who we are.

Product Details

Harvard University Press
Publish Date
June 09, 2020
5.8 X 1.0 X 8.3 inches | 0.8 pounds
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About the Author

Andrew H. Miller is the author of The Burdens of Perfection and Novels behind Glass. A Professor of English at Johns Hopkins University, he has received fellowships from the National Humanities Center and the American Council of Learned Societies.


Miller is charming company, both humanly and intellectually. He is onto something: the theme of unled lives, and the fascinating idea that fiction intensifies the sense of provisionality that attends all lives. An extremely attractive book.--James Wood
On Not Being Someone Else reminds us just how alluring and confounding our singularity is and how, through literature, we make sense of being ourselves. To be someone--to be anyone--is about being someone and not being someone else. Miller's amused and inspired book is utterly compelling about this, and about so much else.--Adam Phillips, author of One Way and Another: New and Selected Essays
What a provocative book! It is interesting and alive on every page, and entertaining the idea of a different life is a profound experience.--Michael Gorra, author of Portrait of a Novel: Henry James and the Making of an American Masterpiece
A one-of-a-kind book that is at once literary and personal, drawing us into a world of reflection about lives we have not lived. Why do we return to the past to understand who we are now? This is a profound question, and this book explores possible answers more acutely than anything I have seen on the subject.--Garry L. Hagberg, author of Describing Ourselves: Wittgenstein and Autobiographical Consciousness
Miller's book is a poetics of the unled life, a poetics of 'what if...' Through poems, novels, films, philosophy, and psychoanalysis--the texts of our modernity--Miller leads us to profound questions about the imagination, the self and identity, history, marriage, children, regret, atonement, storytelling, and the ethics of choice. Above all, he makes us feel the pressure and immediacy of possibility, the road not taken.--Isobel Armstrong, author of Novel Politics: Democratic Imaginations in Nineteenth-Century Fiction
A strong, pleasing work that is as much about living as about reading and writing.--Kirkus Reviews (04/01/2020)
Wonderfully lucid about murky questions of what might have been...Both literature specialists, who will appreciate Miller's breadth of examples, and general readers, who can enjoy the universal topics he explores, will find much food for thought in this pleasant work.--Publishers Weekly (03/26/2020)