January 12, 2017


Which Is Worse? Crazy Questions to Ask Your Friends. By Lee Taylor. Scholastic. $7.99.

The Happiness Equation: Want Nothing + Do Anything = Have Everything. By Neil Pasricha. Putnam. $16.

     If you have any friends left after asking them the questions posed by Lee Taylor in Which Is Worse? you can be pretty sure they are friends indeed. Taylor offers about as unpleasant a set of either-or choices – all of them, yes, illustrated – as readers are likely to encounter. Which is worse, eating a cup of mayonnaise or chugging a cup of raw eggs? All right, that is an easy one – some people really like mayonnaise, and raw eggs are actually used in some extreme sports-oriented diets. How about deciding whether it is worse to be haunted by ghosts or to become a ghost? A heaping helping of death, anyone? How about the death-or-death choice between being buried alive and being sunk at sea? Yet again, those are pretty mild examples of what is here. How about deciding between “one thousand tiny ants in your kitchen” and “one humongous ant in your bedroom,” when the big one is about the size of your bed’s pillow? Or a choice between “having food stuck in your teeth all day” and “drooling every time you talk,” with very explicit pictures? Or the choice between “a rat stealing your snack” and “a rat walking all over your snack”? And would you rather have “a baboon’s butt” (shown in all its bright-red glory) or “a porcupine’s hair”?  Still have any friends to whom you would like to pose these questions, and who might like to see these illustrations? How about the choice between “never-ending diarrhea” and “never-ending vomiting”? Or between “using toenails as ice cream sprinkles” and “dandruff to season your fries”? Taylor obviously goes for increasingly gross either-or possibilities in this book, although it does not actually build in that direction – the unpleasantness of any particular set of alternatives shows up at random, so you never know, when turning a page, just how yucky the next choices will be. Would you rather cough up hairballs or eat already-chewed gum? Have the diet of a vulture or that of a dung beetle? Have whole-body poison ivy or perpetual lice? Never be able to flush the toilet, or never be able to take a shower? Leaving out the issue of what sort of mind Taylor must have to think of these possibilities, the question is who came up with the photo illustrations on all the pages. There is a list of the photo sources at the very end of the book, for those interested in such things – but be warned that the list begins on the page facing the one with the final inquiry, which is whether it would be worse to eat a sundae topped with blood or one topped with bird poop.

     Which Is Worse? is presumably intended to be funny as well as gross, even though it overdoes the grossness to such an extent that the humor generally disappears. Neil Pasricha’s The Happiness Equation is presumably intended to be taken seriously despite its hard-to-believe elements, but in its own way it turns out to be just as gross as Which Is Worse? Originally published last year and now available in paperback, the book runs more than 280 pages but can be summed up with these nine short sentences on page 269: “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.” Everything else in the book is explication, expansion and exegesis. Pasricha is a wealthy and successful author, but that is nothing for which he wants readers to strive. Oh, no. Here is what he says: “To want nothing. That’s contentment. To do anything. That’s freedom. To have everything. That’s happiness.” That is not Pasricha’s happiness, but do as he says, not as he does, and all will be fine (and he will not face competition from readers who think they can write pseudo-philosophical self-help books). Pasricha tosses about simplistic affirmations with vaguely homespun stories, fairy-tale scenarios, and illustrations ranging from a “Keeping Up with the Joneses” comic strip from 1913 to more-modern “Calvin and Hobbes” and “Dilbert” comics. 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. The Happiness Equation is filled with inconsistencies. For example, Pasricha talks about how wonderful  former pro football player Rosey Grier 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 – and also to retire after a highly lucrative career and do something else. 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 this is an author who 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.

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