A cynical, spirited assault on the self-help industry and its eager clients.
Veteran journalist Tiede has a simple thesis: “Self-improvement books are narcotics in ink,” he begins; “you must think, and mess up, for yourself,” he concludes. In between are entertaining eviscerations of the entire pantheon of self-help deities, including Laura Schlessinger (“a moralist, a stiff spine, a hanging judge, a smell fungus, a censor, a hall monitor”), M. Scott Peck, Leo Buscaglia, Jay Carter, Barbara Keesling, Susan Forward, John Bradshaw, Barbara King, Peter McWilliams, Deepak Chopra, Susanna Hoffman (“a wee writer with large knuckles”), and a host of others. Tiede believes these writers offer only poorly written platitudes and palliatives; he counters with a plea for old-fashioned Emersonian self-reliance and a recognition that “the rules of success do not exist, outside common sense, which does not always work.” After demolishing the “success” writers, Tiede dispatches those who focus on relationships, sex, addictions, religion, and a sort of catch-all category: the lonely, old, and fat. Frequently he fires broadsides at baby-boomers (whose values he abhors) and sprinkles throughout much peppery evidence of his impressive education: Alongside the names of the featherweight self-helpers are allusions to and/or quotations from heavyweights Thomas More, George Orwell, James Joyce, Jonathan Swift, Mark Twain, Voltaire, Seneca, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Albert Einstein, and others. Occasionally, in his zeal to point out the nakedness of the self-help emperors, Tiede does not notice his own nudity: He dangles a participle, assigns a work by Godwin (born in 1756) to the early 18th century, claims he saw a Sasquatch, and suggests the Pilgrims (1620) were the first European settlers in North America—apparently forgetting the colonists of Jamestown (1607). Ultimately, predictably, he blames all on the Usual Suspects: the news media, movies, television, celebrity- and youth-worship, and an addiction to pseudo-science (UFOs, astrology, etc.).
Smashing gnats with a sledgehammer can create some pretty patterns on the page, but it’s a strange form of art.