Monday, October 15, 2007

Practically Perfect

I wanted to write about one of the books I read on vacation, because it was good but flawed. That's a blunt beginning, but I have all these thoughts percolating, and I just want to talk about it.

The book is called Practically Perfect in Every Way: My misadventures through the world of self-help--and back, by Jennifer Niesslein. The title has a hint of this whole thing--"misadventures," "and back" (or rather "--and back"--I am a fan of the em-dash, and I do not dismiss the significance of this punctuation). Now, nonfiction is often too-long of title, so I hold this against no one. I think it's interesting, though, that this book may have turned out differently than she first envisioned it.

I liked the book a lot because it was well written, and because the author seemed very much like--well, not me, really, but someone I might hang around with. She was hip but settled down, smart, shares my politics and maybe my priorities, better-off than I am, but also more driven (though I don't know that there's any causality there; she's driven in that she runs a magazine, but the money is not necessarily pouring in from that). I also think self-help is fascinating, and I occasionally read the more titillating self-help books for sheer personal enjoyment.

So where's the flaw? Well, the idea of the book is that she's not perfectly happy, so she decides to try to improve her life by following the advice of a bunch of popular self-help programs (pretty much one at a time--the woman isn't insane). Whatever thin story she came up with for having the idea of wanting to do this, I'm sure it was an idea of something to write a book about. And again, I'm glad she did--I enjoyed reading her book. But the problem she has is that she doesn't really have any problems.

Now, I'm not being dismissive--I understand that a lot of people in happy marriages to wonderful people, with successful jobs, smart children whom they love, and big houses are depressed, unhappy, unfulfilled, aimless, miserable. This woman is not one of them. She and her husband are close, happy teammates. There's nothing wrong with her marriage. So when she sits down with Dr. Phil's book about how to improve your marriage, she's missing the whole point. This book, I can tell just through the parts she shares with me, is not about strengthening a secure bond--it's about fixing something that's broken. If there's a nail sticking out of your dining room table, by all means take a hammer to it. But if there's no nail sticking out, you're probably going to damage your table, if you see what I mean.

It's the same all the way through. At the beginning of the "body" section, she specifically says that, though she knows she's not in amazing shape, she loves her body and thinks it's sexy. WHY, then, are you turning to these books that are speaking to you as though you know there's something wrong with you? A lot of people feel that way, and need help not to, but of COURSE there's nothing there for you.

And this plays out in how some of the advice works. Her discussion of becoming a better social person--where she teaches herself how to win friends and influence people--is interesting, because she successfully follows it, but doesn't like it. She doesn't WANT to win friends and influence people--after becoming a good listener, etc. etc., and finding that it really does make social interactions easier and better, she decides she doesn't really want that, it's too much work, she likes being suspicious. Okay, great, that's you. But doesn't self-help start with wanting to change?

I think the strongest sections are the first two--housekeeping and money--and the section on a book called Authentic Happiness. I like the latter because I feel like I got some good advice just out of her summary of the book. And it's the only place where she really does seem to feel a little moved by what she's doing, rather than harangued. The former two are the only two where she's not really trying to change herself so much as gain some practical skills, and she does so, before realizing that doing everything is not necessarily a great investment of her time.

So I liked this book. I'd love to read more of her writing, and to spend more time in her life. I'm sorry that there was what I felt to be a tough problem at the root of this book. But I really wish I could run up to her and say, "You love yourself, please don't try to change!" Because I loved her, too, till self help pointed out, to me and to her, everything that was wrong with her life.

No comments: