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Simplify Your Life

July 31, 2000

I mentioned previously that many self-help books bear the same message: “simplify your life.” Some get very complicated telling you how. But I’m not about to bash self-help books. For one, it’s a very wide genre. And two, even the kind that echo truisms must serve an important purpose beyond making publishers money, for they never stop selling. And besides, I have a favorite.

Psychiatrists and therapists have prescribed self-help books often enough to prompt several studies of their use. Although few self-help books might be described as good literature, they nevertheless contain kernels of truth that readers recognize. According to psychiatrist Roberta Apfel, they contain some of the very things that survivors of war in childhood recall as giving them strength: “simple phrases; parental wisdom and example; intentional positive thinking; spiritual beliefs that had sustained people through very difficult times.”

I think that sometimes people just need help seeing a new story in their lives. The barest shell of a book can inspire insight in a reader who is ready to have it. Consider the recent bestseller “Who moved my cheese?” Countless businessmen have plopped down 20 bucks for a 94-page book replete with illustrations, wide margins, and large headers. In other words, much less than 94 pages of text.

M. Scott Peck’s “The Road Less Travelled” (1978), was on the bestseller lists continuously for over a decade, and is still happily in print. It may be the most successful self-help book ever, but we would have to compare such works as Ben Franklin’s “Autobiography,” which continues to sell and inspire modern self-help books. One new book shamelessly adapts his thirteen virtues to business management. Another successful title is “Don’t sweat the small stuff” (1997), which I find more appealing than most, if only because it counsels humility and gratitude. As one reviewer noted, it was like listening to his rabbi all over again. A new twist, in “Plato, not Prozac,” claims that many people can solve their problems with a careful application of philosophy. Philosophical counseling is “therapy for the sane.”

I want most to mention an atypical self-help book, entitled “How Proust can change your life” by Alain de Botton. Although I think it’s the wittiest and most insightful self-help book I have read, I must caution readers not to approach it with expectations of a mind-blowing experience. Nothing deserves such a burden of anticipation: not religion, not love, and certainly not a book.

However, with chapters such as ‘How to be a good friend’ and ‘How to suffer successfully,’ the book has finely drawn lessons pulled from a very careful reading Marcel Proust’s enormous novel “In search of lost time.” It is also full of history, biography, philosophy, psychology … reasonably full, anyway, since it’s a slim volume of less than 200 pages, perfect for a self-help book. After a delightful read, one will find a few lessons in hand, in contrast to the platitudes of much advice, which fly away like New Year’s resolutions.

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