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Friday, January 10, 2014

Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture

I couldn't resist the subtitle! This is Promise Land: My Journey Through America's Self-Help Culture by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro.

Jessica grew up in the world of self-help. Her father is a psychologist and self-help writer, and her mother died when she was young, making her childhood all about being in touch with her feelings and working through the hard stuff. As a journalist, she decides to seek out what makes people so attracted to the self-help industry and what makes some self-help writers successful while others work years for naught. Her journey takes her to a seminar on The Rules and how to rope (and keep) a man; a camp where she finds herself mentally strong enough to walk on coals; and on a search to find out what The Secret helps you accomplish.

I was initially attracted to this book because I have always found the self-help genre fascinating. Who reads this stuff, and for things like The Rules and The Secret, who actually buys into it? More than quite a few people, obviously, as these are bestsellers and have been for years. I love Lamb-Shapiro's framework in this book; she approaches all of these chapters with a bit of hesitancy and more than enough skepticism for us both. I appreciate her candidness on both her initial feelings and the process through which she found that, occasionally, a little self-help never hurt anyone. I particularly loved her exploration of the vision board with a friend--where you put everything you want on a board and manifest it.

This treatise made me strongly consider how I feel about "authors" who view their success as a business rather than as a service. ("Authors," not writers, as Lamb-Shapiro says, because not every "author" actually writes their self-help advice in anthologies with which you might be familiar, yet they are still billed as the "author.") I have never bought into things like The Rules or The Secret, but then again I am one who doesn't believe in wallowing in what I don't have. I am single? Well, let me rock the &$#@ out of being single. I will just go on a two week trip to France this summer. I am not wealthy? Not a problem. I will just pinch my pennies in one area of my life so that I can have that new dress. I am a believer in the power of positive thinking, but I do not believe that my thoughts will manifest, for instance, a subway train. You know one will come eventually, right?

I will be the first to admit that I loved the Chicken Soup for the Soul series as a kid. After all, who doesn't love uplifting stories? I had my fair share of these books on my shelf. They fit perfectly in the self-help cubby hole, and this book had me thinking critically as to why I was so attracted to them in my pre-teen years. It wasn't that I needed so much self-help, I think, as it was about my identity search and my seeking out of a positive future that would one day come through. I realize now, especially after Lamb-Shapiro's book, that it is all staged, hokey, and formulaic. But it served its purpose at the time as I am sure it serves a purpose now in many lives around the world. So, at the end of the day, it's not about whether or not it is empirically based, comes from a genuine place, or matters in the larger sense of the world. If it works for you, even as a placebo--rock on.

Kindle version on left, hard copy on right.

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