Culture | Kitchen sermons for the teenage soul

Self-help books get personal

On the morning of November 7, 2009, my mother sat down with her coffee and wrote me an email from the kitchen table. It was not unlike the many emails she had sent me before: “GOOD MORNING MY BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER IN HER JUNIOR YEAR OF COLLEGE!!!!!” read the subject line. My mother is fond of capital letters, exclamation points, emoticons, and hyperbolic language of all kinds. She likes to send me lengthy emails because she knows I will read them, and she doesn’t keep a journal where one would otherwise filter these kinds of things. In these emails, my mother streams the various bits of wisdom and inspiration that she gathers throughout her week. Sometimes they include experiential knowledge, but often they include poignant excerpts from books she has read. These excerpts and her commentary on them always speak to an episode I happen to be going through at the time of their reception. They are what one would call “motivational,” or, dare I say, “self-help” emails. But my mother prefers to call them “Kitchen Sermons.”

On this particular day in November, she is reading from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. “I decided to get up before the rest of the family this beautiful November morning,” she writes. “I wanted a little meditation time to drink my coffee and read the daily passage from my book.” Simple Abundance is a heavy thing with hard covers and an attached pink ribbon. It offers inspiration for every calendar day. On November 7, the headline is “Rising to the Occasion” and my mother lovingly transcribes the passage for me in her email. Apparently, at the time, I was struggling with insecurities that were preventing me from mobilizing myself. I cannot recall what about. College has inevitably been a series of crises spotted with good friends and a good bike. I haven’t read a self-help book since Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul. I was twelve then, I also used a glitter stick on my eyelids every morning.

To me, the self-help genre whistles to the tribe of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club followers. It is the glossy cover; it is the oversized picture of the author in the forest; it is the complementary disc for the car; and it is usually read before or after yoga. The two books I was given to review for this article did nothing to challenge this stereotype. Dream Bigger by Julie Wise begins with the question, “Did you daydream as a child?” followed by, “Do you remember the magic of imagining you could fly like an eagle?” The book, which is about learning how to rekindle “the magic of dreaming” is full of questions and exercises that will reinvigorate your sleeping spirit and motivate you to pursue your dreams no matter how BIG or small. Her advice was nothing my elementary school guidance counselor hadn’t told me before and I stopped reading about twenty pages in.

Boost: Powerful Tools to Re-energize and Re-engage You and Your Team in Crazy Times by Linda Edgecombe (author of Shift or Get Off the Pot) promises its readers improved health, wealth, and happiness. It too addresses the reader with a series of questions: “Do you need to give you and your organization an energy boost? Do you want to feel revitalized and positive? Have an emotional connection to your work and family? Be driven to be outstanding in your field?” If so, “Then read on!” I do everything I can not to think of infomercials – magic bullets and UN-BE-LIEV-ABLE carpet cleaner – continuing on despite my revulsion. Five pages in, Edgecombe tries to hook us by suggesting that there is a steamy love story in her book to help the readers get “though [sic] it.” I read this paragraph to my roommate, complete with typo. “What a waste of time,” she declares, “writers, editors, publishers, readers…” I close Boost before she can finish.

I do not claim to be exempt from needing “help” or “guidance” and I do not resent the existence of the genre that caters to these needs. The goal of self-help books is happiness, and if they work for you, I think that is a positive thing. Ted Baker, director of McGill Counselling Services, discussed the success of self-help books that use the cognitive behavioural approach to guide readers back to a positive mental state. These books, such as David Burns’s Feeling Good, lay out interactive exercises that the reader is intended to follow in order to feel results. “These methods work best when they are done in conjunction with a professional who can do check-ups,” said Baker, “it’s difficult to do it alone.”

For me, this is the salient point. I can search “self-help” on the internet and Google will deliver me 21,800,000 results. The self-improvement section in Paragraphe bookstore contains enough volumes to fill the rest of my days. Despite the excessive availability of support out there, do we feel any less alone? How do we find advice that works for us in the ever-expanding market of self-help? I find the ubiquity of the self-help genre suffocating and insincere. I reject the neat, packaged solution that self-help books like Edgecombe’s claim to provide. Our generation champions efficiency, stability, and the high-functioning individual. We are quick to diagnose ourselves when we feel that we are not operating to our full capacity or not exhibiting a positive mental attitude. These books become a panacea. But what is wrong with a good ol’ sulk? Does the sun always need to shine?
And then there are people like my mother. A person for whom books like Norman Vincent Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking have become cornerstones in her optimism, and dear friends in her library. To these people, I say: keep reading! As Baker asserted, “People need to do what works for them.” For me, that means continuing to turn to the Kitchen Sermons: those distilled, personalized labours of love.