Yearning for self-improvement? Do consider the alternative

On Books

January 28, 2001|By Michael Pakenham

A quarter-century ago, I knew a distinguished, sophisticated retired actress who in the despair of widowhood had withdrawn almost entirely from the world. She happened upon one of the several weeklong commercial seminars in vogue at the time -- they were known as self-help or actualization or self-development. The experience transformed her. From depression she blossomed, exuding energy and the capacity for joy. Ten years ago, not very long before she died at 93, I saw her -- still exuberant, still crediting the program with changing her life.

At the other extreme, I have known a dozen or so people who have spent endless hours at very expensive programs or listening to self-help, self-improvement audio tapes only to go on getting increasingly miserable. A number of them subsequently suffered psychotic episodes. One ended up for weeks in a psychiatric hospital.

Anything that relieves human misery without damaging side effects is marvelous.

For a living, I watch thousands of new books sprint and lope into the American market. I am consistently astonished by the vast proliferation of self-help volumes -- guides to dealing, with or without angelic intervention, with every imaginable human yearning.

Now comes "Self-Help Nation" by Tom Tiede (Atlantic Monthly, 240 pages, $23). Its subtitle goes a long way toward divulging its contents, virtues and tone of voice: "The Long Overdue, Entirely Justified, Delightfully Hostile Guide to the Snake-Oil Peddlers Who Are Sapping Our Nation's Soul."

Tiede has been a newspaper reporter, foreign correspondent, columnist and publisher. He's run businesses, including a bookshop. Here, he probes deeply into self-help literature -- an industry involving billions of dollars a year.

He cites and analyzes specific books and others that represent major genres -- the Chicken Soup series, the late happiness superguru Leo Buscaglia, Og Mandino, billed as "the greatest self-help author in the world." There are others, many others, things with titles like: "Life's Little Instruction Book," "Smart Companies Don't Crumble," "The Art of Exceptional Living," "Clean Out the Closets of Your Life." (Yes, these are real.)

Tiede recounts that when he owned a bookshop he was offered, cheap, more than 600 self-improvement volumes with a total cover price of more than $12,000. They had belonged to a man who went bankrupt, losing his house as well as his books. Tiede took them to his shop, where he found "all of the books had the dust jackets folded as book marks within the first 20 or 30 pages."

His search has gone far further. His conclusion: "Self-improvement books are narcotics in ink. They obtund with false promise.... The jails, divorce courts, and bankrupt records are stuffed with the misguided if not demented folks who squander time, money, and hope on the side-walk psychology and desert wind contained in these depressing tomes."

Ironically, inevitably, this volume itself is a self-help guide. It is as messianic in its own way as are the books he strips naked and flagellates. The faith it peddles is rational skepticism, which I find to be a whole lot healthier than the self-pity, quackery, superstition and sentimental trivialities that permeate the self-help genre.

At points, he seems to condescend to those who live in silent -- or even talkative -- desperation. He's not cruel or dismissive, however. His scorn is more a waking-up slap in the face -- "tough love." In the chapter "Addictive Admonitions," he relates being in Vietnam and counseling very young soldiers who had lost limbs in combat -- and with courage and character faced the hideous reality of being crippled -- realistically. He writes of that with heart-wrenching affection and respect.

But about the genre, he finally is angry and acid -- ruthlessly sure: "Of course, none of it works. If you are simple enough to buy a self-help book, you may be congenitally programmed to fail. But what of it? Reason does not much define our culture anymore."

Does he resent the books' success? Of course. "Real psychologists spend years writing brilliant academic books that fetch $5,000 advances from university publishers, who sell four thousand copies (when the stars align correctly) while backyard brainmeisters can market fuzzy-wuzzy self-improvement treatises on television or in book stores for the equivalent of the Mexican GNP."

His essential message is: Yes, life can be tough, but get over it, get on with it. What alternative does he offer? "Try coping. If that fails, try the priesthood, walking to Belmopan, or Jack Kervorkian. You'd do better selling crack than leafing through massifs of fix-up advice; and the pay is steady."

He has great fun with the narcissism and self-indulgence taken to be characteristic of baby boomers, whom he calls "the Booms." His chapter "Toxic Intimidation" is a brilliant ridicule of books on victimization and escaping it, from childhood onward.

These books he detests, these programs, these techniques appeal to needful people. Do lots of people have serious problems in their lives, their work, their families? Of course. That is not even open to question. The vulnerability is there or the market wouldn't be. The question is whether these books help, harm or make no difference at all.

Individual readers must decide. I have known several more souls than my actress friend -- relatively intelligent people -- who have convinced me that they have been permanently nourished and strengthened by self-help programs. With all, I have had a sense that they would have got there without the box of tricks, but I celebrate their greater sense of happiness and constructiveness.

That said, Tiede's book is immensely entertaining and seriously humane. It stands firmly on moral principle. It's a genuine contribution to sanity and decency.

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