Comedian Jolenta Greenberg loved crystals, monitored her chakras, and wanted to believe self-help books could “fix” her. Her friend Kristen Meinzer, a broadcast producer, equated self-help with snake oil. So Greenberg asked Meinzer to join her on a project: for two weeks at a time, they lived by the rules of a different self-help guide, and recorded their experiences for what became the podcast By the Book. Fifty guides later, Greenberg and Meinzer share what they’ve learned in How to Be Fine (Morrow, Mar. 2020).
After all this time, is self-help finally cool?
Meinzer: It’s become a very popular thing to discuss. Like, “Oh, I steam my vagina!” or “I use this face mask!”—by the way, I’m using a face mask right now—but more people are owning up to the fact that it’s okay to take care of ourselves. In a different era, it was shameful to seek a therapist or a self-help book, but the fact is that a lot of the mainstream medical establishment ignores women, who are the main readers of self-help, so they go looking for answers elsewhere.
You’ve delved into three decades’ worth of advice. How has self-help evolved?
Greenberg: I’ve really enjoyed the influx of books about the greater good. In A Girl’s Guide to Joining the Resistance by Emma Gray [Morrow], there are different levels of involvement in your day-to-day life, like the TV you choose to watch, thinking about the message you get, and maybe getting more involved politically. These books on how to take care of yourself and how to take those changes out to the world—I love that trend.
Meinzer: It’s been great to see more books that touch on things that made us angry in past books. Intersectionalism is something we’ve seen in books recently that we hadn’t seen before. That’s not to say that some of the old tropes—“Men are like this, women are like that” or “If you’re not happy that’s your own fault”—don’t continue to come up.
Greenberg: A lot of the personal growth or “how to be optimal” stuff is like, “Don’t take shit personally” blah, blah, blah. That’s easy if you’re a white dude, but if society is set up to make your life harder, then you’re allowed to take it personally and want to change things.
Which books have stuck with you the most?
Greenberg: Right now our favorite is What to Say When You Talk to Yourself by Shad Helmstetter [Gallery]. It’s a book about self-talk, the messaging we’ve received and how we internalize it. It shows how we can reshape our thoughts about ourselves, and make healthier thinking patterns, which leads to us being happier and better to the people in our lives. I’m becoming more aware of how I talk to myself and use more gentle language about myself.
Meinzer: A book that I liked a lot more than Jolenta was A Simple Act of Gratitude by John Kralik [Hachette]. I was going through a really rough time when we were working on this book. Living in a manner that told us to be thankful for certain things—which, by the way, isn’t about erasing feelings; it just says that even in bad times you can find something to be grateful for—I kept thinking, “I’m grateful I have friends, because all of these terrible things would be a thousand times more terrible if I didn’t have friends.”
Greenberg: I was turned off by the author’s journey but not the book’s message. It’s growing on me.
The reviews in your book are pretty forthright. Were you worried about offending anyone?
Greenberg: We have no skin in the game. We’re not going to burn any bridges with our influencer friends. We’re just people who want to see, “If we adhere to this as seriously as the authors take themselves, will it help our day-to-day life?”
Meinzer: A lot of these books are like cookbooks that never had a test kitchen. It’s like one obsessive person made all these recipes, but did they try them out? Did they have other people try them out? Do they actually apply beyond this one person? In a lot of the cases the answer is no. It feels like Jolenta and I must be the first people who are giving these books a test drive.