Life Breaks In (A Mood Almanack), by Mary Cappello

Shahidha Bari on an idiosyncratic and tantalising inward-looking exercise in soulful diary-keeping

December 1, 2016
Photograph of Virginia Woolf

“Atmospheric changes” that “awaken forgotten selves” is how Proust neatly explains mood in In Search of Lost Time, cited by Mary Cappello in her own curiously described “mood almanack”. Cappello has a good ear for a pleasing quotation, and she derives the book’s title, Life Breaks In, from Virginia Woolf (pictured above). Cappello’s book, a mercurial and spry account of her passing reflections, recollections and sensations, begins with Woolf musing over how to write “a real diary: something in which I could see changes, trace moods developing; but then I should have to speak of the soul”. There’s a charm to Cappello’s efforts at emulating Woolf’s soulful diary-keeping, and what follows is a text that is largely personal rather than scholarly, an intimate effort at documenting mood in individual rather than purely academic terms.

And yet if this is a personal text, this is not so much in the particularity of the memories that Cappello recalls – none of which can be as remarkable or illuminating to us as they are to the author – but instead in the idiosyncrasies of her fragmentary style and the obscured logic by which she organises her material. In reading this book, we are guided only by the writer’s subjectivity, and although Cappello is admirably candid about this almanac of “miscellany”, encouraging us to “float into and out” of her moods, the book, sadly, sacrifices coherence for atmosphere. One of the difficulties of the text is that it flits so rapidly (perhaps like moods themselves), moving from different experiences and observations. Cappello’s moods are variously found in a song, a sound, a film, a photograph and a room, and although it’s clear how those things might evoke different moods, she never dares to alight upon a solid definition of what might constitute mood.

Perhaps the point here is that mood is that insubstantial, ephemeral thing, resistant to containment. Cappello duly gripes a little about the crude “data mining” approach to mood she perceives in a “happiness index” invented by US scientists in 2013. But scientists, academics and scholars only strive to gauge phenomena in their different ways, and Cappello’s meandering prose itself makes a case for a more meticulous and careful mode of documentation, especially when mood seems something both incorporeal and important. Writing is Cappello’s means of data capture, and the evocative writers she cites prove how language captures the experience of mood with precision and particularity. The difficulty here is that this also puts enormous pressure on Cappello’s own writing, which is not always equal to the task.

In many ways, this is a tantalising book, full of unfinished thoughts. “In what sense are iPhones replacements for our moods as holding environments?” Cappello enquires at one moment. It’s a great question, answered only vaguely here. In our cyborg age, isn’t mood, unpredictable and volatile, the only thing that is uniquely human and not replicable in robots? The stakes seem so high in mood that we must figure out how to make better sense of it.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism, Queen Mary University of London.

Life Breaks In (A Mood Almanack)
By Mary Cappello
University of Chicago Press, 408pp, £20.50
ISBN 9780226356068 and 6235 (e-book)
Published 14 November 2016

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Related universities


Print headline: Exactly how are we feeling now?

Reader's comments (1)

Just for a few days to open a free registration is the best site for adults in 2016 (according to the rating agency similarweb). This is the site to quickly find a sexual partner, communication and sharing of photos and videos of the private nature of the materials (18+) and intimate video chats. The biggest gallery of nude photos and videos of men and women around the world! Hurry, registration is not again become a paid! Get free access here:

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest