“Promise Land”: A skeptic among the gurus

Laura Miller in Salon:

Promise_land-620x412Dad: Everyone has to finish the game, or no one wins.
Me: What?
Dad: No one wins unless everyone wins.
Me: So no one wins.
Dad: No, everyone wins.

That conversation perfectly captures the spirit of “Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture,” Lamb-Shapiro’s deadpan, eyebrow-arched effort to comprehend the glass-half-full point of view despite her own half-empty propensities. There’s no shortage of books featuring “cultural history” and other quasi-sociological surveys of this terrain, but Lamb-Shapiro’s take is different. Part experiential journalism, part memoir, “Promise Land” is both funnier and more searching than detached forms of social commentary could ever hope to be.

…What Lamb-Shapiro does know a lot about is language, and even the self-help proponents she finds worthwhile have a tendency to put her off with their clichés and mushy terminology, buzzwords like “life-altering passage” and “healing circle.” Her “allergy” to this lingo derives in large part from her sensitivity to the way that words professing to name the truth can instead be used to mute it. Yet in the end, even Lamb-Shapiro finds herself recognizing that merit hides in the most banal self-help maxim of all (which you can guess easily enough with a glance at the book’s cover image of a kitten dangling from a twig). “Can even the most bastardized, laughable incarnations of self-help carry some kernel of redeeming value?” she asks herself. There’s the rub, because (as the late David Foster Wallace was wont to affirm), indeed they can. Sometimes even the smartest among us find ourselves with nothing to fight off the encroaching night but a well-worn incantation. And sometimes, even if only sometimes, it’s enough.

More here.