Saturday, April 08, 2006

The last post about the ultimate book on the final topic you'll ever need to read...before you read the next one.

You'd think there'd be room in any given realm for just one book called "The Last [fill in the blank] You'll Ever Need," but indeed, books thusly titled (or subtitled) have become something of a sub-industry of their own within the self-help movement*. Though many critics and armchair reviewers took Paul Pearsall's 2005 effort, The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need: Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer, and Throttle Your Inner Child, at face value, it was actually just the latest of at least five books bearing titles along those lines.

So far as I can determine, the trend dates all the way back to 1983, when no less than three such books found print. Amid the renewing promise of January 1 of that year came Jerome Lund's oddly titled The Last Self-Help Book Before Getting Results (why before? Didn't he plan to deliver the results?); Lund** more recently has found fame and fortune with his collaboration on Aramaic Documents from Egypt: A Key-Word-In-Context Concordance. In June 1983 Walker Percy published Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book, a more inquisitive and literary exploration of the realm, or about what you'd expect from Farrar Straus & Giroux's foray into self-help. (If FS&G could've persuaded Saul Bellow to write on self-help, I'm sure they would have.) September saw the release of So...Why Aren't You Perfect Yet for $4.95?: The Last Self-Help Book You'll Ever Need, by Michael Popkin, who later went on to build a successful franchise in self-help's parenting wing (e.g. Active Parenting: Teaching Cooperation, Courage, and Responsibility). The market duly saturated, contrarian self-help authors took a nearly two-decade sabbatical, which ended with the November 2001 publication of Five Simple Steps to Emotional Healing: The Last Self-Help Book You Will Ever Need, by Gloria Arenson. Arenson's book still holds its own on Amazon, as will be true of any book whose title contains the words simple, steps, emotional, and healing, in just about any order or combination.

Those at SHAM's core generally accuse the authors who write these books of being sly and disingenuous--of distancing themselves from the genre (and disparaging self-help's utility and honesty) as a devious way of sneaking in the back door and stealing themselves a nice slice of the same pie. It's an accusation that for some inexplicable reason has also been lodged now and then against me and SHAM, most publicly by Mark Victor Hansen during our Anderson Cooper mini-debate. This makes no sense at all. Now, did I want my book to sell? Duh. Of course I did. (How many authors do you know who write books that they hope will fail?) But nowhere in SHAM do I attempt to establish myself as a guru in my own right. In fact, we purposely omitted the final chapter contained in the original proposal--"Where to Find Real Help If You Need It"--lest we open ourselves to that very charge: that my expose was, in essence, a self-help book in disguise. No way. The book was an exercise in journalism**, and I defy anyone to prove differently.

I do, however, think there's some merit to those accusations when they're aimed at this mini-proliferation of "last" books. Whether the tone is tongue-in-cheek (Popkin), searching and cerebral (Percy), earnest (Arenson), or a hybrid of all of the above (Pearsall), all of these books try to straddle the fence between critique and program. That's because all of these authors perceived the phenomenon that was unfolding everywhere around them, compared their own bank statements with the advances being paid out to SHAMland's established or emergent gurus, and made a sensible, pragmatic calculation: They wanted in. They just wanted to be able to respect themselves in the morning.

Can they do that? You be the judge. Pick up a few of these books--I recommend Percy's and Pearsall's as the best of the bunch--and let me and/or your fellow SHAMbloggers know what you think.

Oh, and it bears noting that all of these authors were wrong: America clearly needed many, many more self-help books. And isn't done yet. Not by a long shot.

* or carefully positioned on its periphery.
** It is possible that this author is not the same Jerome Lund--he's listed in the second case as Jerome A. Lund--and if that's the case, I apologize to Jerome A., who I'm sure would rather be known for his knowledge of Aramaic languages than for a poorly titled self-help book.
*** and, yes, I allowed myself the author's prerogative of making editorial comment on what that journalistic effort had uncovered.


Anonymous said...

This is hilarious. Is there no end? Keep up the good work of publicizing this ongoing "sham"!

angela said...

i agree! these posts are the kinds of offbeat observations i read the blog for. and I'm a fan of self-help books! still I like to think i'm an informed consumer too.