My Worst Book

Let me begin with praise for self-help books.

I love 'em.

Seriously.  Yes, they are full of terrible assumptions.  They often glorify the self, reducing everything to psychological adjustment.  In many ways, they are the triumph of late modern capitalist democracies; technologies of the self that perpetuate middle class values. Sure.  Absolutely.

But often times they are also the best advice people will receive in churches today; not for lack of other opportunities, but because of the way modern lives are closed off from real relationships over time.  So for many people wrestling with their dysfunction, they provide guidance towards maturity that most people don't find in church communities, largely because they can never go there with people.  There is something about the safe interiority of reading, however, that opens people up to truths they would not otherwise hear.  Or maybe print just seems more official, learned.  Either way, there are a whole lot of people in my church who still need to read Boundaries because they aren't taking the hint from their friends, so even if I have to warn them to check every botched scriptural reference, I still want them to be be equipped with the concepts and help negotiate the boundaries in our relationships informed by people who have considered them.

And sometimes self-help books are not worth the carbon offset they require.

Case in point:  Mindset

I don't want to tee off on this book.  I am sure that the author, C. Dweck, a Stanford professor, has done a great deal of powerful research over the years with much to report.  But the book is really the most tepid pool of poor editorial decisions that you can imagine.  It feels cobbled together by the market and not the research.  This is too bad, because it's basic point is great: people can change.  Our capacities for growth are not fixed. In her research (which the book provides no access to), people with a "fixed mindsets" are often more limited than people with a "growth mindset".  The key then is to praise effort and practice more than achievement to help people grow.  Sounds great, right?

It should be.  Laying aside the industrial world's obsession with "personal achievement  and "fulfilling our potential," the book seeks to trace some cognitive aspects of what hope looks like in individuals.  This is a fantastic thing!  At the same time as Mindset, I was serendipitously reading an article on Middle East conflict resolution which also asserted that reconciliation occurs when people believe the other party can change.  Together, both pieces drew me to consider the message of hope in the Gospels, and specifically how it gets worked out in real people and real situations; what does hope look like?   Over the last year or so, God has been impressing upon me that I am awfully cynical for someone preaching that Faith, hope and love abide.  If  God can and does change things, perhaps I should be more optimistic about people in general.  Not naively, of course, but with hope that springs from the Risen One.

Understand, of course, the hope in Mindset has nothing to do with Jesus.  At all.  I just hoped to learn some things about being optimistic.  So I approached the book humbly, aware of how bogged down, faithless and stuck my own cynicism makes me.

But the book was really bad.  After divulging the main point in the first chapter, the rest of the book is full of the most banal, forced illustrations you can imagine with few practicals to teach people how to hope.  Particularly grievous were the sports analogies.  In comparing McEnroe to Michael Jordan, the author paints Jordan as this virtuous athlete who believed in the power of hard work to change, a basketball Jesus.  Poor Mac, though, was just a petulant, insecure athlete.  The book doesn't bring up how Jordan flew out his highschool coach to the Hall of Fame induction ceremony just to humiliate him.    Or the women, or the gambling....  As a sports fan (I admit it) the book instantly looses credibility by forcing the example soo hard to make a point:

"Hey I like rap.  Are you into the Fresh Prince, too?"

My negative reaction is probably proportional to the hype surrounding it, but this sports example points out  how painfully formulaic the book is;  "Athlete X is great because he demonstrates my principle  _______."

/spoiler alert/
So here is my basic problem with the book:
It is ironically, shallow enough to feel cynical, feel like it was cobbled together by editors who washed out the real research and instead tried to imagine how they could reach the common person they describe by various market-share formulas.  There really is no research in the book, no real depth, and once you read the first chapter, you have the whole book, and yet there is soooo much buzz surrounding it.  Apparently no one was ever told "keep trying, you can grow," before.  If you want a perfect, short synopsis of the main points, check out this education website summary instead and give the money you save to a worthy charity.

(As an aside, I kept wondering if there's a warning here somewhere for the interminable Bible study booklets people are forced to use in church.  Doubtless you know the type:
  • a paragraph of vague background material/summary
  • 3 questions about specific verses in the passage 
  • a concluding, "what are you going to do now" question. 
When you see a small group of people trying to study a new book of the Bible, wait and watch their faces when somebody suggests they could read one of those study guide pamphlets to help them.  The expressions I've seen pretty much confirm that their formulaic nature doesn't really satisfy.)

So the book fails badly at being a book and that's too bad since the main point is solid.  Maybe I should be glad for the hype surrounding it.  It could mean people are genuinely being helped.  I dunno.  Since I've picked it up, I've discovered that there is an attendant Franklin-Covey-ish product line and seminar opportunities in tow, all of which seem even more cynical somehow; a great way to take a dollar while telling people something they probably have heard before.  I wish there were more emphasis on the research findings, and less terribly forced stories to make the point.  At least Cloud and Townsend's generic stories illustrate the points they are making.

Which brings me back to self-help books in general.  What separates the good from the bad?  Writing really does make a difference.  I feel like I could write a "how to write a self-help book" manual because the styles and arrangements are so similar.  Mindset almost mocks this with its paucity of substance and preponderance of chatty examples that demonstrate very little.  At the very least, poor writing can obscure any good intentions.  Take this blog, for instance...


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