Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Life's Compost?

I received today via email--apparently this is the latest trend in low-budget publishing--an "e-copy" of a book a publisher is submitting for my inspection and review: Life's Guideposts, by Alice Dickerson. Now, you'd think I'd be the last person on earth a self-help publisher would want reviewing their latest offering. And right off the bat, the introductory paragraph made me skeptical: "Life's Guideposts is a personal-growth workbook designed with an abundance of blank spaces for you to fill with your private thoughts." So I'm thinking, Is this another one of those scams where they're selling you, in essence, an empty book, which you then fill with your own words....?

Well, I've now thumbed through the book (to the extent it's possible to "thumb through" an e-book), and I have good news and bad news.

The good news: Life's Guideposts does contain some actual words of its own.

The bad news: Life's Guideposts does contain some actual words of its own.

Rarely have I read anything so pregnant with self-help catch-phrases and simplistic blather masquerading as "inspirational" reading. Typical example: "The achievement of your goal is assured the moment you commit yourself to it." (Right. And we're all gonna be rich someday. And every Little Leaguer who sets his sets on going to The Show will be playing first base for the Yankees in a few years. And no marriage where a couple tearfully promised at the altar to "love and honor" one another ever got put asunder...) Guideposts is an empowerment extravaganza, a veritable buzzword boulliabaise, put together under the theory that if you cram as much of this fluff as possible between two covers (leaving, of course, ample blank space for the reader's personal reflections), the masses will buy it. And guess what: Dickerson and her publisher are probably right.

I know this stuff sells; I think I recall writing a book on the subject. In fact, it sells to the tune of $10 billion annually, now, as per updated figures from Marketdata Enterprises. (In SHAM, the figure we quote is "just" $8.5 billion.) Still, the mind boggles.

As it happens, I did recently write an Amazon review for a book I stumbled upon in the library: Spirit-Centered Relationships: Experiencing Greater Love and Harmony Through the Power of Presencing, by Gay Hendricks. It was, quite simply, one of the silliest things I've ever read, even for New Age fare--sillier even than the babble churned out by Marianne Williamson, and that's saying something. I was laughing so hard at one point that I feared being thrown out of the library. I stopped laughing when I got home, looked it up online, and found out it reposed in Amazon's top 20.

It has been alleged--most directly by Mark "Chicken Soup" Hansen, during our CNN debate*--that it's author-envy, not a commitment to truth and justice, that motivates me to attack self-help. I can tell you forthrightly that such is not the case; in fact, the germ of these thoughts had planted itself long before I began writing books of my own (or writing anything, for that matter). Self-help books of the sort I'm describing here contain no real information; certainly they contain no new information. They tell you little or nothing of value. Half the things they do tell you have never been proven in any meaningful way (or are patently unprovable), and the other half aren't even internally consistent. (Does it really make sense to glorify "selflessness" and "personal achievement" in the same book? Unless the author plans to spend a lot of time clarifying and qualifying, which none of these books ever does.) Moreover, the advice you find in books of this nature is seldom actionable--beginning with such seemingly innocuous exhortations as "lead a God-like life." What exactly does that mean, in practice? Today's world events make it all too clear that we can't even agree on who God is, or what He (She?) expects from us; hell, we can't even agree on whether or not it's OK to draw Him/Her. So what does it mean to tell someone to "lead a God-like life"? To go to church every Sunday? Or to fly commercial airliners into tall buildings?

I say again: If you want to improve your lot, skip these books and take a course at your local community college. Learn a trade. Study music. Plant some flowers in your garden. Just stop enriching the residents of SHAM-land. They've already got their Maseratis to take them to their private jets...

* You'll have to scroll down a fair distance to read the relevant portion of the transcript.


Rodger Johnson said...

This is probably one of your most in-you-face attacks on SHAM to date.

Interestingly, per the third read of SHAM -- the book -- and a survey of the literature written about it by scholars -- I've found a good piece that I'll send you in the next week or two.

And, you SHAMbook blog entry about the hot dogging snowboarder who lost gold because she was grandstanding gave me an idea for a brief essay. I'll send your way to when it's done.

Back to this post. It's true that enriching your mind or enjoying nature are probably more helpful to the self than a dose of Dr. Phil.

You'e not the first to say it, and probably -- more than likely -- not the last. Read "The Culture We Desrve," it's excellent.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Roger on this. This was pretty harsh. Its wonderful to find someone with so much honesty. When My book is completed I remember to have you blast me. I do however have a recommendation of a book that could/could not fall into your self help category
Self Judge Meant by Rick Anderson
He has a website