“Promise Land”: Jessica Lamb-Shapiro’s View of Self-Help

 I think it really serves a purpose in the culture. That said, I don’t really think it works most of the time. You know, that’s kind of the fate of being an American is that you’re never satisfied. It becomes this never-ending pursuit of improvement. There never really seems to be a point where people [think], You know what, I’m done. I’m good. Author of Promise Land Laura Lamb-Shapiro, The Cut

The “it” in question? Self-help.

Promise Land: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture, by Laura Lamb-Shapirocame out this week. From the book description:

Raised by a child psychologist who is the author of numerous self-help books, Lamb-Shapiro found herself at once repelled and fascinated by the industry to which her father had contributed so much. Did all of these books, tapes, and weekend seminars really help anyone? Why do some people swear by the power of positive thinking while others dismiss it as hokum? In the name of research, she attempted to cure herself of phobias, followed ‘The Rules’ to meet and date men, walked on hot coals, and even attended a self-help seminar for writers of self-help books.

Laura MillerSalon, calls Promise Land “Lamb-Shapiro’s deadpan, eyebrow-arched effort to comprehend the glass-half-full point of view despite her own half-empty propensities.”

Included in the book are analyses of such self-help-culture traits as being taught to follow a one-size-all type formula, following “law of attraction” theories that don’t really reveal how they’re supposed to work, and the all-too-common usage of a lot of psychobabble and buzzwords.

Lamb-Shapiro writes in Chapter One about not knowing how her quest to study self-help would turn out. “I wasn’t sure how this antagonistic plot was going to end, though it seemed there were limited options: one of us (me or self-help) was going to be revealed as the asshole, and for the sake of a happy ending I was rooting for self-help.”

Ultimately she does actually discover some value in certain self-help teachings. As she relates to Alexandra Primiani, Publishers Weekly, “Self-help is a reflection of our aspirations, our fears, and our values…On an individual level, I think it can offer comfort in difficult times. The trick is to strike a balance between relying on yourself and relying on others, so that you don’t disappear into a solipsistic black hole.”

What books in the self-help genre does she actually like? It’s clear she’s into the classics, including Ben Franklin‘s autobiography and the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson and William James.

The deeper Lamb-Shapiro went into her research, by the way, the more her own inner and unresolved stuff needed to be addressed, i.e., the loss of her mother very early in childhood. Readers discover later in the book that it was from suicide.

Selected Book Reviews

A.J. Jacobs, author: “Here are two important self-help rules. Buy this book. Read this book. You’ll feel better about yourself and the world. Promise Land is funny but not sneering. It’s poignant but not maudlin. It’s smart but not pretentious. This is gazpacho for the soul, which I much prefer to chicken soup.”

Publishers Weekly: “A sincere and hilarious picture of the personalities and ideas found in this field of self-promotion and discovery…Lamb-Shapiro’s journey through self-help culture fascinates and entertains, and as much as it also serves as a quasi-memoir, it excels.”

Daniel Smith, author: “Promise Land is not only a raucous, engaging account of all the hope, despair, faith, fear, falsity, and truth that comprises America’s centuries-old obsession with self-improvement. It is also a deeply felt personal story about family, secrecy, and grief. Read it and you might just find yourself improved.”

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