the oldest self help book


I’ve often thought of America as a nation forged in loneliness. That pioneer spirit, that radical self-reliance that claims to need nothing but itself, is another way of talking about a people dislocated, living off the fragments of each other’s traditions. Breaking ground in the rural wilds far from cities, settlers of the New World were forced to democratize the very idea of tradition out of necessity. Religion, science, Old World remedies brought from Europe on scraps of paper, New World cures just discovered — Americans were interested in any scrap of custom or ritual that could help them be more independent. Even magic and the occult were useful. In this, ritualized independence itself may be the primary tradition that Americans — a society of fragments — has produced. It can be found in all the important American texts, from the Constitution to Leaves of Grass. It is in the utopian health manifestoes of John Harvey Kellogg and Sylvester Graham whose message we literally devour every time we eat the cereals and crackers that bear their names. It is in our national anthem, in all our songs and jingles.

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