October 20, 2005


The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need. By Paul Pearsall, Ph.D. Basic Books. $24.

Your Own Words. By Barbara Wallraff. Counterpoint. $14.

     The self-help industry is so mindlessly self-indulgent, so vapid, so celebrity-infused and so utterly without shame that it would be wonderful if The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need were indeed the last self-help book you would ever need.  It probably won’t be, though, because it flies too strongly (even brutally) in the face of too many tenets of the self-help industry, as Paul Pearsall’s subtitle makes clear: “Repress Your Anger, Think Negatively, Be a Good Blamer & Throttle Your Inner Child.”  Pearsall is a neuropsychologist based in Hawaii, where it would seem easier to lead the good life than in, say, New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  But his point is that there is no single “good life,” and attempting to identify one and then attain it is a recipe for feeling as if you are constantly falling short. That is just how many people feel, Pearsall argues, and that is why self-help books are so popular.  They are, however, fundamentally flawed, he says, because they try to make people conform to impossible ideals.  If there is a single counter-prescription Pearsall offers, it is to be realistic: Grow up and take responsibility for your life instead of blaming your parents or your environment; be happy with who you are and do not keep trying to be something more or better; don’t be afraid to quit when something isn’t working; learn how to blame – blame is not bad if properly directed; focus in a mature way on your “outer elder,” not on your “inner child.”  These are good precepts for which Pearsall argues emphatically, if a touch dogmatically (a failing his book shares with other self-help tomes).  Unfortunately, some of Pearsall’s other recommendations are harder to accept: Give up hope, which falsely makes us feel that happiness is only in the future (but can’t hope for something better be a spur to attaining it?); practice cheerful denial of the bad things in life instead of insisting on facing reality (but aren’t there many cases in which the failure to face reality lies at the root of unhappiness?); be satisfied with feeling okay and stop trying to feel great (but is it so bad to want to feel better?).  Like anyone with a cause, Pearsall runs roughshod over counterarguments in his conviction of his own rightness.  He is, in truth, more right than wrong, but too often slips into the same hectoring tone that he bemoans in the self-help industry he so despises.

     Your Own Words offers self-help of a more modest and practical kind.  Barbara Wallraff’s book is for writers – from professionals to occasional E-mailers – who are concerned about using English correctly.  Her point is that there is no single blueprint for correct usage: sources such as dictionaries differ, grammarians argue among (amongst?) themselves, and popular usage is often best even when official sources deem it wrong.  Her chapters on stylebooks, an imaginary perfect dictionary, and special-purpose tools are especially interesting, and her own writing is bright and to the point throughout.  The main difficulty with Your Own Words is that it is all too easy to take Wallraff’s precepts too far and believe there is simply no right way to use English.  This linguistic equivalent of moral relativism is a distortion of what Wallraff says, but she gives this incorrect interpretation a little too much credence by insisting on the shortcomings of all existing sources of information on the right way to write.

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