What narcissistic fools we 21st-century mortals be. We have every form of ailment imaginable, and every idea for treating it. We eat/drink/shop/love too much— or not enough. We can't get together, and we can't break up. After years of ignoring our inner children, we've found them—and now we abuse them. We're slobby, sloppy and oversated—and that's no overstatement. But the most narcissistic thing about us, the Greek myth we all had to study in grade school notwithstanding: we think we invented narcissism.
Just because we have no record of self-help books predating Gutenberg doesn't mean that there weren't any. After all, as long as there's been a self, there's been self-loathing. And where goes self loathing, there enters self help. You think cave people didn't have "issues," too? I'd bet you it's just a matter of time until archaeologists discover the first edition of Guys Who Hunt Too Much (and the Gatherers Who Love Them). And everybody knows there's wisdom in examining what your cave painting says about you. And I have no doubt, no, none at all, before too long we'll be reading in the New York Times Book Review about the newly excavated The Abacus for Dummies. It's human nature, this self improvement thing, that's all.
It's also typically American. French women, as we all know, don't get fat—and so they don't need South Beach, Scarsdale, Atkins et al. And while you'd think British do-it-yourself dentistry manuals would fly off the shelves across the pond, I've yet to come across any. Why? Because nobody else, except, perhaps the Australians (and they're so far away, can we ever *really* know what they're doing?) has our cowboy roots, our can-do spirit. On our little island, if it's not broke, we break it. Why? Well, silly, so that we can fix it, of course.
In my lifetime, I've read a self help book—or two dozen. And for the most part, I'd say they're a lot like sex. Great and helpful and necessary when they're good. And when they're not so good? They're still okay.
But wait: could that be a new trend lurking in the distance, just over the next rack of books? We know, of course, that earnestness has long been a hallmark of the self-help category (think Deepak Chopra). When an urge arises to spruce up one's emotional health, one's worldview, one's whole life, the issue is frequently not a laughing matter. The message authors often spout is one of hope, optimism and gooey promises of a rediscovered well-being. A subtle change, however, might be on the way. As Lissa Warren, Da Capo Press senior publicity director, puts it: "We're seeing the rise of the 'irreverent' self-help book. It seems like everyone is sick of Pollyanna-ish advice."
HCI senior editor Amy Hughes has been searching for what she calls "books out of the self-help box." She even notes that this perennially popular market may have reached its limit—that it may be in need of reinventing itself. Could it be? Does self-help require help? Could the following forthcoming titles be harbingers of a lighter touch in this traditionally weighty category? Help me out here.—S.N.
(For an extensive list of Self-Help titles, please click here.)
The Joy of Doing Things Badly:A Girl's Guide to Love, Life and Foolish Bravery by Veronica Chambers (Broadway Books/Harlem Moon, Apr.)
Interviewee: Janet Hill, executive editor
Author's credentials: Editor at Premiere magazine and the New York Times Magazine; culture editor for three years at Newsweek.
Why did you acquire this book? "The sheer joy, exuberance and hopefulness of Veronica's message totally swayed me. She has an enormous appetite for life and wants to share that recipe of boldness and courage with others. Her 'try and try again,' or 'fake it till you make it' attitude has yielded a wonderful and joyful life, but not without very hard work and determination that is rare."
Who's the audience? "Women young and old, and probably a few men. The readers of Anna Quindlen and Martha Beck will adore this book, as will the readers of Omagazine."
Wisdom from the book: "The things we do badly set us apart; what we consider our failures have a surprising ability to charm. We think we have to be perfect for other people to love us, when in fact the opposite is true. We are loved for our imperfections—for our funny faces and walks and dances and songs."
It's Not Me, It's You by Anna Jane Grossman and Flint Wainess (Da Capo/Lifelong, Feb.)
Interviewee: Maria Cochran, executive editor
Author credentials: "Anna Jane is the wedding columnist for the New York Post, and Flint is a writer on ESPN's Jim Rome Is Burning. They created the Web site breakupnews.com."
Why did you acquire this book? "There are endless books on how to date and marry well. This is the opposite. It puts the whole idea of relationships on its head. Why don't people realize that most relationships fail? The first section is 'Getting Ready for the Breakup, a.k.a. The Relationship.' Yes, the tongue is planted very firmly in the cheek."
Who's the audience? "People who want to take Hallmark sentiments down a notch. It's a book your best friend might buy for you, and it's meant to be practical. In the 'Aftermath' section, it suggests strategies for getting back at the person who broke up with you."
Wisdom from the book: "There's something amazing that tends to happen when two people fall in love: they grow, they change and eventually, they come to hate each other... Breakups shouldn't be scary... This is the moment the relationship was building to."
TVTherapy: The Television Guide to Life by Beverly West and Jason Bergund (Delta, Aug.)
Interviewee: Danielle Perez, senior editor, Bantam/Dell
Authors' credentials: "Bev is the author of our four Cinematherapybooks, and she also wrote Bibliotherapy." She and Bergund live and watch a lot of television together.
Why did you acquire this book? "With shows like Lost and Desperate Housewives, TV is overtaking movies as entertainment. People watch an average of four and a half hours every day. Although this book is done tongue-in-cheek, its light tone has some seriousness. If you think your family is dysfunctional, you can watch The Sopranos and feel better about your own situation. You see people get fired on The Apprentice and your own job doesn't seem so bad. And if you're lonely, the television keeps you company."
Who's the audience? "This is a kind of therapy that's useful to any age group. It covers classic television from I Love Lucy to Dallas, as well as the new shows."
Wisdom from the book: "Our favorite shows are best friends and a form of remote control therapy that can help us cope with everything from a bad hair day to a bad breakup."
The Way Out:The Gay Man's Guide to Freedom Even If You're in Denial, Closeted, Half In, Half Out, Just Out or Been Around the Block by Christopher Lee Nutter (HCI, May)
Interviewee: Amy Hughes, senior editor
Author's credentials: "Chris is a journalist in New York who has been published by the New York Times,the Village Voiceas well as a lot of gay publications."
Why did you acquire this book? "I was amazed there weren't more self-help books for gay men in America. It's part memoir, and Chris says, 'I'm not claiming to be an expert. This is what works for me.' People don't want to be addressed in a formulaic way, and Chris uses humor to pick up on the communal language of brotherhood. He's also very spiritual, not subscribing to any particular denomination, but he believes people should be aware and conscious."
Who's the audience? "You have issues if you are gay and in America. It will help gay men find out who they are, rather than simply subscribing to the identity they're fed by the world around them."
Wisdom from the book: "With nothing to lose I can have a sense of humor about the whole thing—the shift in my life in such a short period of time from preppy, closeted Southern frat boy to self-centered New York gay party boy to enlightened self-help author is quite funny, you know. It's very Madonna."
Pull Yourself Up by Your Bra Straps: And Other Quacker Wisdom by Jeanne Bice (Hyperion, Sept.)
Interviewee: Kelly Notaras, senior editor
Author credentials: "Jeanne's a designer of sparkling clothing, covered in sequins. She was a Wisconsin housewife in the early '80s when her husband died, and she had to learn how to support her family. The book is filled with stories about her life that show women how, even when the chips are down, you can pull yourself up by your bra straps."
Why did you acquire this book? "Jeanne's personality. She's totally irrepressible. She has a big presence on QVC, where she sells $50 million in clothing annually. She's also a large woman with a really upbeat attitude. She's not your glamour person at all. She says that if a fat kid from Fond du Lac can do it, you can too. She says about weight, 'If you can't lose it, decorate it.' "
Who's the audience? "Her legions of fans who call in when she's on QVC. They're after her clothing. They're after her. They're after her message."
Wisdom from the book: "When you go to your place of work, don't forget to bring your duck beak and whistle. You will find these two items to be indispensable as those around you try to put stress into your life. There is absolutely no way anyone can mess with you when you're wearing a duck beak."
How to Meditate with Your Dog by James Jacobson (Maui Media, dist. by Midpoint, Oct.)
Interviewee: James Jacobson, publisher
Author credentials: Jacobson has meditated since he was a child, teaches meditation, and has been meditating with Maui, his pet Maltese, for the past 13 years.
Why write and publish this book? "Meditation is the single most important thing you can do for your own happiness and health, but people don't know where to start. If you have something you already love, you can leverage that love and use it as the heart of the meditation process. This is a serious book with a fun angle to it. It's narrative nonfiction, so it has a tail—however you want to spell it. Dogs are often in a state of what I call 'hound-lounging,' half-awake and half-asleep, the doggy version of meditation."
Who's the audience? "Someone who wants to learn to meditate and will let me walk them through the process, and, of course, someone who loves a dog. Meditation is frequently camouflaged in mystique. This is, so to speak, a non-dogmatic approach."
Wisdom from the book: "Maui lay on her back on the floor. All four paws poked up in the air, and her teeth were bared in a contented grin. Not exactly the stance we expect from a guru. But she is. Your dog is, too."
Reel Fulfillment:A 12-Step Plan for Transforming Your Life Through Movies by Maria Grace (McGraw-Hill, Oct.)
Interviewee: John Aherne, senior editor
Author credentials: "Dr. Grace has a Ph.D in counseling psychology. She's a Fulbright scholar and has been using movies in her work for seven years."
Why did you acquire this book? "When I first looked at it, I realized that it wasn't a light take on the subject. It's a psychologically sound, 12-week program that helps people transform their lives. It does, however, take a light-hearted approach, and everyone loves to watch movies. We're calling it The Artist's Way meets Cinematherapy."
Who's the audience? "There's the general self-help audience and people who want to improve their lives in general. But there will be a great crossover audience, the people who love movies, people who can envision themselves as one of the characters in a movie—Miles in Sideways, for example—and learn how to get out of self-sabotaging patterns of behavior."
Wisdom from the book: "Mrs. Doubtfire is a tale about the power of lightheartedness to transform an entire family in crisis. We see how [the central character] Daniel, by creating the 'as if' reality of Mrs. Doubtfire, is healing himself, his children and his wife from the wounds of the painful divorce."
Fail Betterby Herter Studio (Running Press, Apr.)
Interviewee: Jon Anderson, publisher
Author credentials: "Herter Studio is owned by Carolyn Herter, who used to work for Chronicle. She gives it that Chronicle Book gifty feeling."
Why did you acquire this book? "We couldn't pass up a book with a title like that. It comes from a quote by Samuel Beckett: 'Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.' It's a collection of anecdotes and quotes following the philosophy that the greatest success comes through many failures, and we've always done very well with inspirational books."
Who's the audience? "The primary market is the new graduate, but we're hoping the title will be so intriguing that people will be compelled to pick it up. No one else has attempted one like this, so we'll either succeed brilliantly or fail spectacularly."
Wisdom from the book: A gem from Truman Capote—"Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor."
Flings, Frolics and Forever Afters:A Single Woman's Guide to Romance After Fifty by Katherine E. Chaddock and Emilie Chaddock Egan (Ten Speed Press, Sept.)
Interviewee: Julie Bennett, senior acquisitions manager
Author credentials: "Katherine has been divorced twice, and Emilie was widowed. That happened when the sisters were in their 50s, so they knew about facing singlehood in a very different world of dating."
Why did you acquire this book? "There are so many women in that age group who are single. I also loved the tone of the book. It's all about finding long-term romance or just finding friends to go to a movie with or finding a one-night stand. Women say, 'Just because I'm older doesn't mean I'm dead!' "
Who's the audience? "We'd published The Happy Hook-Up: The Single Girl's Guide to Casual Sex, and I loved the idea of a book targeting an older audience."
Wisdom from the book: "There's no getting around it: turning 50 was a bit of a setback for each of us. Suddenly we weren't just 50-something women. We were 50-something single women. First you come unglued. Then, maybe in a few months or a few years, you are surprised to realize that you are, in fact, still living. You notice that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and it is not a train hurtling toward you."