March 17, 2016
(++++) WORDS TO (TRY TO) LIVE BY
Keep Curious and Carry a Banana: Wisdom from the World of Curious George. By Justin Martin & Liza Charlesworth. Illustrations by H.A. Rey. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $12.99.
The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything. By Neil Pasricha. Putnam. $27.
If The Tao of Pooh offers life lessons, why not take some additional ones from Curious George? The little monkey created and made famous by Margaret and H.A. Rey has long since passed into the category of an icon, and books using him continue to appear at a well-nigh-alarming rate, often as teaching tools for young children. So why not something for wayward, uncertain adults – who, after all, still have a great deal to learn before they can achieve anything approaching the happiness that Curious George possesses as a birthright? Hence Keep Curious and Carry a Banana, a book in which Justin Martin and Liza Charlesworth draw forth from the Reys’ canon bits of pithy wisdom delivered with suitable delight and tongue not very firmly in cheek. “Begin each day ready to monkey around!” opens the book, with one of H.A. Rey’s memorable illustrations for clarity – showing pajama-clad, smiling George just about to get out of his very human-style bed. Anyone who knows and loves George will recognize this book’s illustrations immediately, and the slight twists that Martin’s and Charlesworth’s words give to them are altogether pleasing and, really, not bad life advice at all George holding paintbrush, standing before an easel: “A blank canvas is a brilliant opportunity.” George walking across telephone wires: “Life can be a high-wire act – the trick is keeping your balance.” George joyously letting pigs out of their pen: “Unlock the potential in others.” Green-jacketed George, walking with arms outstretched toward The Man in the Yellow Hat: “Give free hugs.” George, finger outstretched, looking down at and apparently talking to a baby bunny: “Respect differences in others. It’s much more interesting that way!” Indeed, life is much more interesting when one follows the precepts of this little book and this little monkey, and if the Reys never intended George to be quite this philosophical, what of it? The phrase “keep curious” (with George shown dressed as a window washer, looking into a room where painters are working) applies as well to human life as to George’s.
Keep Curious and Carry a Banana impressively sums up its life lessons in only 80 pages, but Neil Pasricha needs even fewer to encapsulate The Happiness Equation. He can do it in one – does do it in one. But it happens to be page 269, which shows that when you intend to deliver hyper-serious, philosophically profound advice with an appropriate level of gravitas, you need to produce something closer to 300 pages than to 100. Still, in the interest of brevity, here is Pasricha’s peace that passeth all understanding except, presumably, that for which one spends $27: “Be happy first. Do it for you. Remember the lottery. Never retire. Overvalue you. Create space. Just do it. Be you. Don’t take advice.” The rest of The Happiness Equation is simply exegesis, including an explanation of the book’s pseudo-mathematical subtitle. Pasricha sells a lot of books and presumably has his success, but it is very doubtful, on the basis of what he is selling here, that he has it through what he formulates as a tripartite structure: “To want nothing. That’s contentment. To do anything. That’s freedom. To have everything. That’s happiness.” Like many another self-proclaimed positive thinker, Pasricha asserts that the keys to happiness are all within, being independent of external factors; and also like many others of his ilk, he likes to illustrate his simplistic affirmations with vaguely homespun stories and fairy-tale scenarios. Thus, he trots out the story of the Mexican fisherman who already has everything that “a tourist wearing expensive sunglasses and a fancy watch,” and sporting an MBA, can offer him; presents, in its entirety, the well-worn poem “If—” by Rudyard Kipling; includes a “Keeping Up with the Joneses” comic strip from 1913, plus more-modern ones from “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Dilbert”; uses Jerry Seinfeld and Rosey Grier as role models; and much more. Pasricha has an answer for everything (although it helps that he himself formulates the questions). For example, “The way to make more money than a Harvard MBA isn’t to get your annual salary over $120,000 or $150,000 or $500,000. It’s to measure how much you make per hour and overvalue you so you’re spending time working only on things you enjoy.” Great! Now – how much does Pasricha make? Hmm. Seems to be missing. He actually reveals little about how his thought system has affected his own life – unlike, say, Scott Adams, creator of Pasricha-cited “Dilbert,” in How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. No, Pasricha will have none of that: he is all about success, not failure, and about defining success in such a way that you get it without any particular hardship. When Pasricha does reveal anything personal, it is along the lines of, “When I was fourteen years old, I got my first job in a nepotism-riddled scandal.” (This turns out to refer to work as a pharmacy technician for his cousin.) Not much self-revelation there. Also, Pasricha skips merrily from idea to idea without bothering to note inconsistencies. That Rosey Grier citation, for instance, is all about how wonderful the former football player is for having written a book about needlepoint “after retiring from the NFL.” But only 100-plus pages earlier, Pasricha strongly advocates living the way centenarians in Okinawa do, stating (yes, in italics), “They don’t even have a word for retirement.” So the idea is never to retire, never even think about it (Pasricha also gives an example of a guidance counselor who retired at 65 and promptly died) – and also to retire after a suitably lucrative career and do something else. Pasricha peppers the book with “scribbles” in the form of boxes and lists and buckets and other shapes that look hand-drawn and are supposed to produce a homey feeling (and that, by the by, do not hold a candle to Rey’s drawings of Curious George). And Pasricha seeks to deflect criticism by stating up front that “you will not agree with all nine secrets [given here] the first time you read them,” then offering “3 ways to get the most out of this book” (numbered 3, 2, 1). So Pasricha clearly deems himself beyond criticism and, by implication, considers those who follow his precepts (or at least pay money to hear him deliver them, whether in this book or at his Institute for Global Happiness) to be beyond it as well. By all means try The Happiness Equation if you think this sort of (++) book really offers the secrets of joy and wealth not only to Pasricha but also to you. But take note of two things. First, Pasricha’s comment, “Don’t take advice,” is advice you are supposed to take. And second, Pasricha is, yes, a Harvard MBA.