Best sellers reveal a growing desire to simplify

January 02, 1998|By Paul D. Colford | Paul D. Colford,NEWSDAY

At the busy crossroads of the old and new years, Richard Carlson urges us to be less bothered by the hullabaloo.

"Life, although it seems like it, is not an emergency," he said the other day.

Carlson, a 36-year-old psychologist, lecturer to corporations and family man, may be the leading self-help instructor on the scene today, having distilled his prescriptions for a calmer and more meaningful life into two simple and extraordinarily successful books this year.

"Don't Sweat the Small Stuff and it's all small stuff," subtitled "Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life," advises readers: "Learn to Live in the Present Moment," "Become a Better Listener" and "Ask Yourself the Question, 'Will This Matter a Year from Now?' "

The book has spent most of 1997 at or near the top of the national best-seller lists. It was No. 1 again last Thursday in USA Today's ranking and it will remain No. 1 on Sunday's New York Times list of advice books.

That's quite an achievement, considering that Hyperion launched "Don't Sweat" as a trade paperback in January with a comparatively modest printing of 40,000 copies. Positive buzz and a subsequent visit by Carlson to Oprah Winfrey's TV show have helped send the book back to press, again and again, so that there are now 4 million copies in print. (I recently had to distract a woman, absorbed in her copy, to perform the checkout ritual at my local library.)

In Carlson's hardcover follow-up, "Don't Worry, Make Money," subtitled "Spiritual and Practical Ways to Create Abundance and More Fun in Your Life," he argues, for example, that expressing gratitude to others not only is the right thing to do at all times, but it "guarantees that more help is just around the corner." He underscores more than once the wisdom of pausing when faced with a business challenge, to quit overanalyzing and "know the secret of silence," so that solutions can arise amid the calm.

Published in October, the second book led the New York Times' list of advice best sellers for a time, and it topped the paper's December rankings of business titles. The number of copies in print has grown to 606,000.

"I'm tickled, touched and grateful by the response because I've been saying some of these same things for 15 years, and now for the first time people really seem to be listening," Carlson said in a recent phone interview from his home near San Francisco. "But what I make of it is that I think people are really tired of being annoyed. I was asked recently to describe Americans in two words or less and I said, 'easily bothered.' We're bothered even though part of us realizes how lucky we are and what extraordinary opportunities we have."

With his resonating cheerfulness and impressive knack for keeping the rap uncomplicated, Carlson is but the latest purveyor of simple wisdom to connect with readers and strike it rich in the process.

The 1980s gave us the whimsical Robert Fulghum, whose hugely successful "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" echoed such golden rules as "Play fair" and "Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody." In the 1990s, H. Jackson Brown Jr.'s practical advice to his college-bound son later was packaged by Rutledge Hill Press into a palm-sized keepsake called "Life's Little Instruction Book," whose popularity gave rise to a series of volumes that also were dressed in covers of homey plaid.

In Carlson's own books, he refers approvingly to empowering works by Wayne Dyer, Marsha Sinetar, Charles Givens and Deepak Chopra.

Indeed, the format of "Don't Sweat" and "Don't Worry" (each is a squat size and consists of 100 short chapters) copies that of two similar titles of recent years, Elaine St. James' "Simplify Your Life: 100 Ways to Slow Down and Enjoy the Things That Really Matter" and "Living the Simple Life," which also were published by Hyperion and had strong sales.

It comes as no surprise that these print successes in what some observers have identified as a growing "simplicity movement" would be followed by similar volumes to be published by Reader's Digest, which accounts for much of what millions of Americans choose to read. The publishing giant is inaugurating an adult imprint, Simpler Life, whose flagship title in June will be Deborah DeFord's "The Simpler Life." Its other books will include "Simple Courtesies," "Simplify Entertaining," "Simplify Your Household" and the like.

For an encore, Carlson is writing a book tentatively titled "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff With Your Family." At the same time, he recognizes that his singular success, and the increase in invitations to give speeches and write more, conspire to undo the simplicity in his own life. "My goal is to take on less and less and stick to spending time with my family," he said. "The measure of my own success is the degree to which I walk my own talk."

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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