cover image Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life

Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life

Micki McGee, . . Oxford Univ., $29.95 (304pp) ISBN 978-0-19-517124-2

The huge success of self-help, according to McGee, rests on the fact that its practitioners seamlessly combine two conflicting goals, financial or outward success and religious or inner transcendence, claiming that you can eat your cake and have it, too. In a tone less caustic and more sociological than Steve Salerno's in SHAM (Reviews, May 30), McGee, a sociologist and cultural critic at NYU, carefully demonstrates the fallacious underpinnings of this mindset, drawing from a deep well of quintessentially American resources ranging from Cotton Mather to Emerson and Max Weber. Self-help overemphasizes the individual's agency at the expense of the necessary reliance on or assistance of a network of others, and it can be sexist, too, says McGee. Women's rise in the workplace has revealed the "fault lines" in the image of the self-made man, who really depends on a wife to sustain his efforts. To McGee, it's such mendacity that lies at the core of the self-help project, for we cannot make ourselves. Fortunately, her gracefully written account is tinged with sympathy for the harried souls for whom "self-improvement is suggested as the only reliable insurance against economic insecurity" at a time when companies do not properly look after their workers. (Aug.)