Useful Question: Are All Books Self-Help Books?


I was in New York last week for work and, as I tend to do every time I am in the City, I had breakfast with an editor of mine – Adam Korn, of WilliamMorrow/HarperCollins. On the surface, Adam and I could not be more different. I am a six-foot-four corn-fed Catholic child of the Midwest who would rather spend a week in the woods than a weekend on the Upper East Side. He’s a five-foot-six Jewish kid who has never lived anywhere but New York. And, yet, our friendship is one the most treasured relationships in my life. Every time we get together, we talk about books and ideas. We finish each other’s sentences like old school chums. We talk with rampant enthusiasm and our hands, so much so that we often draw stares. He usually shares the latest Japanese novel he’s reading and I usually spout a lot of drivel about my observations of the world.

It is, in no uncertain terms, a near-perfect friendship.

As we were sipping our coffee from the ever-so-stylish, ever-so-country-French bowls they serve it in at Pain Quotidien on 54th, we began talking about Malcolm Gladwell. I’ve written about and Gladwell here, specifically his latest book, “David and Goliath.” I loved it. I also loved “Outliers” and am quickly making my way through “Blink” and “The Tipping Point.” I like his quirky style. I like his massive assumptions. I like the huge leaps in logic he makes and the process of trying to figure them out. I also, as does Adam, understand why so many people seem to hate Gladwell. His theories are flimsy and self-serving. His research is stilted and he chooses only examples that seem to help make his point.

Adam has been in the book business most of his life. His dad owned and operated a medical publishing business. He’s been an editor at several of the big houses and even spent some time as a literary agent before, one assumes, he got sick of not being able to look himself in the face. He knows books. He knows publishing. He knows a lot of things and I love him for it. I trust his judgment.

So I asked him, why, if Gladwell and Tim Ferriss and a whole host of other non-fiction authors, are so apparently bad at what they do, do their books sell so well and create legions of fans? We bantered back and forth for a little while and then Adam struck upon a truth so simple and profound yet completely emblematic of our times: Gladwell sells a lot of books about the uber-successful and the underdog, about viral trends and snap judgments because, at their core, those books are not about those things… they are about the reader.

Let’s take a look, book by book (and here I’m leaving out “What the Dog Saw,” which I really like, because it is actually a collection and not a stand-alone book) to see what he means.

“The Tipping Point”

On the surface, this book tries to explain why things go viral, why trends become trends and why some things catch popular attention while others molder. This was Gladwell’s first book and probably the closest to something resembling journalistic remove. But, isn’t it really about the desire we all have to fit in, to be popular, to sit at the cool kids table? Don’t we all want to consider ourselves trend-setters? And doesn’t this book really speak more to your desire to be noticed than anything else?

“Blink”

This is an interesting book about first impressions – how they can be either amazingly accurate or deceiving. Here, Gladwell is trying to tell the story of our unconscious mind, but isn’t he really telling the story of your unconscious mind? Isn’t, after all is said and done, the impression that matters to us the one that belongs to us? He’s explaining instant attraction. He’s explaining how to prepare for a job interview. He’s justifying why some people get laid and others do not. It’s just that he’s doing it through examples of art and car salesmen, police shootings and divorce.

“Outliers”

My first experience with Gladwell and the one that got me curious. Here, he uses examples of Canadian hockey teams, Jewish litigators, Bill Gates and Asian languages to explain why some people or groups seem to excel beyond the pack. He’s attacking the notion of the self-made man by showing the fallacy of the thing itself. It’s a very compelling work. But, why? Why do we find ourselves caring? Because, deep inside all of us is that desire to be extraordinary. We look at a guy like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs and we think we could never be them. We assume they are the super human. What Gladwell does here is break down that misconception and reveal all the people and circumstances hiding behind the curtain. There is no Oz the Great and Powerful, there is only a person who has benefit from levers being pulled, personal drive and circumstance. Does this not salve the sting of middle management? Or perhaps get us to reconsider our own extraordinary circumstance?

“David & Goliath”

I loved this book because, by the time I read it, I had already figured out what Adam was talking about even if I could not articulate it. I realized it is parable and cautionary tale. If you want to do great things, refuse to fight by the established rules. Play Goliath’s game at your own peril. Better to change the rules so that you have a better chance to win.

So, how are Gladwell’s ideas all that different from Tony Robbins’? They aren’t. Tony Robbins just says it a bit more superficially. He tells you that you are capable of great things. Gladwell explores the idea of David. I think this is the central argument made by his critics, but also his greatest achievement.

We live in a time of structural and systematic selfishness. Social media, while claiming to be about community, is actually about bragging and about preventing your greatest fear from coming to fruition – missing out. Music is hand-selected by the track. Everything is customizable. Discovery is not about finding new things to love, it is about finding the things that reflect your first love – you. This sounds like a criticism, but I actually kind of love this. Warhol thought we would all be famous for 15 minutes. But the technology and opportunity we surround ourselves with means we are always famous – at least to ourselves.

“Every book these days is a self-help book,” Adam said. He wasn’t complaining. He was merely observing and reporting. We tailor our lives, our art, literature, culture, community to our own needs. We live in an iPhone culture that allows us to craft on a very detailed level our experience of the world. Robbins was great at allowing us the permission to be selfish. Gladwell seems to understand that we  no longer need that permission, we just need something to read.

We don’t pick up one of Gladwell’s books because we really want to learn art history or economics. We don’t read Tim Ferriss because we are curious about the new small economy. We read these books because we are looking for something in and of ourselves, for ourselves – justification, inspiration, motivation or means.

I’m okay with that. I really am. I may love books. I may write them. I may write about and share my experiences in the world. And I may do so with a genuine sense of curiosity in mind. But if, at the end of the day, I can’t make that writing somehow more about the reader than about myself or the subject, then I have failed. That’s the reality of things.

And that’s just fine with me.

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