Snake Oil, Vitamins, and Self-Help

by Mark Harvey

Vitamins and self-help are part of the same optimistic American psychology that makes some of us believe we can actually learn the guitar in a month and de-clutter homes that resemble 19th-century general stores. I’m not sure I’ve ever helped my poor old self with any of the books and recordings out there promising to turn me into a joyful multi-billionaire and miraculously develop the sex appeal to land a Margot Robbie. But I have read an embarrassing number of books in that category with embarrassingly little to show for it. And I’ve definitely wasted plenty of money on vitamins and supplements that promise the same thing: revolutionary improvement in health, outlook, and clarity of thought.

On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with self-help. I think one of the most glorious and heartening visions in the world is that of an extremely overweight man or woman jogging down the side of the road in athletic clothing and running shoes. When I see such a person, I say a little atheist prayer hoping that a year from now they have succeeded with their fitness regime and are gliding down the Boston Marathon, fifty pounds lighter. You never know how they decided to buy a pair of running shoes and begin what has to be an uncomfortable start toward fitness. But if it was a popular book or inspirational YouTube video that nudged them in that direction, then glory be!

The same goes with alcoholics and drug addicts. Chances are, millions are bucked up by a bit of self-help advice from a recovering addict or alcoholic, an inspirational quote they read, and even certain supplements to help their bodies heal from abuse.

But so much of what’s sold as life-changing does little more than eat at a person’s finances in little $25 increments of shiny books and shiny bottles. Sometimes the robberies are bigger—thousands of dollars in the form of fancy seminars, retreats, or involved online classes. There are thousands of versions of snake oil, and there will always be people lining up for some version of it. Read more »

The List

by Deanna Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

Modern life would be impossible without pet theories. (One of my pet theories is that everyone has pet theories.) How could we make sense of the quotidian horror and cruel contingency of our lives under late capitalism without a little magical thinking? Everyone has a soul mate out there somewhere. There are two kinds of people in the world. The CIA is tracking our Amazon purchases. Black is slimming. One of mine is that during the course of a lifetime, everyone gets one fabulous found item. (Granted, some people may get more than one, but that is rare and clearly bespeaks a karmic debt.) Some may go looking for theirs—like a detectorist unearthing a hoard of Saxon gold—which is not exactly against the rules, but vaguely contravenes the spirit of the theory; most often, however, it comes when you least expect it. I am happy to announce that ten years ago I found mine and so now I can relax. I wish I could say it was a pilgrim shoe buckle or a lost diamond tennis bracelet, but in some ways it was even more valuable—it has, in the ten years since its discovery, afforded countless hours of speculation and amusement. My Found Object is a shopping list.

Medium: Blue ball-point ink on wide-margin 3-ring notebook paper
Location: Shopping cart bottom, Save-On Foods, Cambie Street, Vancouver, BC
Finders: Doctor Waffle and Mr. Waffle, while grocery shopping
Date: 7 August 2010

[Handwriting #1:]

  • Milk -> a big one (we can do it)
  • Ketchup
  • Bread
  • Frozen veggies?
  • Yogurt (probably strawberry)
  • Diet coke
  • Juice
  • Cheese variety -> the good stuff
  • Cracker variety
  • Salamie like last time
  • Some type of cracker spread
  • Smoked salmon
  • Ceareal ! a good for you kind.
  • Peanut butter (REAL) no kraft BS
  • Strawberry jam
  • Low fat ice cream
  • Chicken breasts
  • Is the pasta sauce in the fridge any good?
  • if not … more sauce.
  • Ground beef & pork
  • Lets make meet balls? Ill get a recipe
  • Croutons & salad dressing

[Handwriting #2, scrawled at top of sheet:]

Sorry Baby got home
at 9pm. Will go
shopping Wednesday

[Handwriting ambiguous, at very bottom of sheet:]

I HAVE $45.00 —

Even after countless re-readings and hours of in-depth analysis, this document still has the power to move me deeply. (I am not being facetious.) As soon as my spouse and I finished reading the list multiple times and wiping the tears of laughter from our eyes, we immediately uploaded it to Facebook. Our friends were as transported by the list as we were, and for the next couple of days produced exegesis and commentary worthy of Maimonides. Who are these people? What is their relationship? Why did the list’s original addressee not get to the grocery store (and did he ever)? Why are they so obsessed with eating healthfully, yet also stock their cart with fatty meats and cheeses? What is the meaning of the mysterious addendum BEANS? And perhaps most importantly: how on earth did these people expect to procure the items on this list for $45 in Vancouver, a city where a pint of Ben and Jerry’s costs upward of ten dollars? Read more »

The grandfather of modern self-help

by Emrys Westacott

1859 was not a bad year for publishing in Britain. Books that came out that year included Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and George Eliot’s Adam Bede. The first installments of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White also made their appearance. And Samuel Smiles published Self-Help.

The fiction in this list remains fairly popular. Mill’s essay is generally considered a foundational text of modern liberalism and is widely used in political science undergraduate courses. Few people other than serious historians of science read On the Origin of Species in its entirety, but its standing as one of the most important and influential works ever penned is unassailable. Self-Help, by contrast, is rarely read or referred to these day except by literary and cultural historians of the Victorian era. Yet in its day it was an immediate bestseller, was quickly translated into several languages, and established Smiles’ reputation, thereby enabling him to settle into the ranks of those who, by dint of their own efforts, had achieved success and security.

Self-help books have been around for a long time, of course. One of the purposes of Plato’s dialogues was to direct people towards living the good life for a human being. Epictetus’ Handbook offered the same promise from a Stoic perspective. Plutarch’s Lives, at least some of them, have long been taken to provide inspirational models. But in the modern era, few texts in this category have been as influential, at least in their day, as Self-Help. Perhaps its most important precursor was Ben Franklin’s Autobiography, which tells how its author rose from an impoverished nobody to a highly respected somebody, and was explicitly written to illustrate the process. Read more »