September 15, 2016


The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life. By Janice Kaplan. Dutton. $16.

     The new paperback edition of Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries (originally published in hardcover last year) contains a reading-group guide, and that is a good thing, because this is the sort of book for which reading groups can be, well, grateful. On the positive side, groups can be grateful that the book is very easy to read; is written as breezily as would be expected from the former editor of that once-over-lightly, celebrity-soaked “newspaper magazine,” Parade; and deals (simply, accessibly and mostly on the surface) with a feeling that most people in reading groups (and out of them) would probably agree they could use more of. That would be gratitude.

     On the negative side, though, is the fact that Kaplan’s gratitude comes in some very specific forms to which people in reading groups (and out of them) will likely find it difficult to relate. Kaplan simply decides one December to spend the next year feeling and exploring gratitude. All right; got it. But she then divides the year into seasons according to what sorts of things she will look into in gratitudinous terms (and no, “gratitudinous” is not a word, but it should be, since it describes Kaplan’s book rather precisely). So wintertime is for marriage, love, and family; spring is for money, career, “and the stuff we own”; summer is for health; and autumn is called “coping, caring, and connecting.”

     Well, let’s see what Kaplan has to be grateful for. She is very rich. Her husband is a doctor. She has a great career. She lives in both a New York City upper-crust apartment and a Connecticut country home. She has cashmere dresses and leather boots to keep her warm. She takes trips to the Caribbean and the Alps. Her sons are tall, handsome, smart and accomplished. She can easily make a spontaneous decision to hop on a plane for a quick flight to England to talk with someone about gratitude. She can get celebrities on the phone with ease (and does, constantly: she loves to name-drop, as if celebrities’ views on gratitude or much of anything else have the slightest validity or importance). She can hang out in Amsterdam pretty much whenever she wants (which renders her complaint about the restaurant service there less than convincing). Oh – and she has the wherewithal to write a book that is filled!!  With!! Exclamation!! Points!! (And) (has) (lots) (of) (parentheses) (all) (over) (the) (place!!)

     The extreme wealth and privilege of Kaplan certainly do not disqualify her from being miserly with gratitude for what she has and deciding to do something about it. Her fawning love of celebrities does not disqualify her from asking them questions about gratitude – and getting answers that pretty much anyone could give, and that would be far more believable if they did not come from the super-rich, super-entitled, super-“important.” The in-your-face preachiness of Kaplan’s tone does not disqualify her from presenting information that some readers will latch onto and conceivably even find useful. The fact that scientists and doctors give Kaplan-the-celebrity immediate, easy access to their time and to information that a better but less-well-connected writer would have difficulty obtaining does not disqualify her from using that access to obtain material of potential use to readers.

     The problem, though, is that ultimately Kaplan does so little with her very considerable wealth, power, access, and freedom to go just about anywhere and do just about anything on a moment’s notice (freedom that is the result of her very considerable wealth, power and access – circumstances for which she should be grateful but which she manages not to explore on that basis, so thoroughly does she take them for granted). The specific recommendations here range from the useful but obvious (regularly write down things for which you are grateful) to the useless and silly (stare at every meal for 60 seconds before eating so you will be sufficiently grateful for it). And there is something flat-out unbelievable about Kaplan’s assertion, time and again, that she can turn every reversal into something positive – not only for herself but also for her equally wealthy, equally well-connected friends.

     The Gratitude Diaries reads, all in all, like an overhyped and over-extended magazine article – and yes, its style would fit right into Parade or a similarly trite (but popular) publication. Profundity is not necessary in self-help books (and not required to demonstrate one’s seriousness). For that matter, good writing is not required, either: anything that gets the point across (clearly enough for reading groups) is really just fine. What is missing in Kaplan’s book (and apparently in Kaplan’s life) is any meaningful contact with people who are not wealthy, well-connected and well-married, with loads of leisure time (and all sorts of great connections with People Who Matter – capitals intended). It is unfair to shoot the messenger, especially one bringing as important a message as that of being grateful (for what life brings). The Gratitude Diaries, though, offers a (truly) spectacular mismatch between messenger and message. It is less a book of self-help than a book of self-love, a book of blithely experiencing wealth, privilege and celebrity (at every turn) and wondering why one is not more grateful for all of it (and whether gratitude would make all this amazing stuff Even! More! Amazing!). Yes! It does! Kaplan finds that out! (But the whole thing is still gratitudinous.) (Yes, gratitudinous!)

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