A social history of and commentary on the extremely lucrative enterprise of dispensing advice.
Realizing she cannot possibly deal with all, or even many, of three centuries’ worth of professional advice-givers, Weisberg, formerly a producer of Serial as well as Vice News Tonight, narrows it down to a comfortable number and arranges her discussion chronologically. She begins and ends with commentary on Americans’ fondness for obtaining advice from newspapers, books, conferences, and the internet and then takes us back to the late 17th century and John Dunton, whose Athenian Gazette debuted in London in March 1691. As the author writes, this periodical, which “delivered harsh and clear determinations of what was acceptable and what was not,” was the beginning of it all. She then proceeds forward in fairly formulaic fashion: an introduction to each adviser, a bit of biography of the person, explorations of current practitioners who follow a similar approach, and comments about the strengths and failures of the techniques. Quite a few of the names will be familiar to general readers, including Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Dale Carnegie, and Dear Abby. But Weisberg also focuses on less-well-known figures, including William Alcott and Joan Quigley, “Nancy Reagan’s astrologer.” The author is not afraid to deliver some zingers. She sees hypocrisy in Dr. Spock; marriage counselors Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt are “old-fashioned”; Miss Manners (Judith Martin) is “a blend of a Jane Austen heroine and Anna Wintour.” The most engaging chapters are those in which Weisberg participates in some fashion. She attends a Dale Carnegie workshop, interviews advisers, and brings personal perspective. She also provides plenty of historical nuggets, reminding us that Dear Abby and Ann Landers were estranged identical twins and that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross helped found the hospice movement. The tone is generally informative, though sometimes critical and even cynical.
A swift account of an industry that bubbles with bluster and marinates in money.