Take Their Advice

The collected counsel of the avant-garde is no match for the wisdom of a few Harvard scientists

In the introduction to Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation From People Who Know a Thing or Two, James L. Harmon muses upon the birth of his brainchild, which he generously likens to an updated version of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. Harmon wonders, “What would Rilke say in those years leading up to the twenty-first century, to an angry, cynical, ironic, black-clad, café-dwelling, cigarette-puffing, wannabe-artist poseur like me? I wanted to find out.”

The main problem with Harmon’s book, however, is that its collection of advice appeals precisely to that particularly unattractive group of “wannabe-artist poseurs.” There are some real gems, to be sure, from luminaries such as Howard Zinn, Judith Butler, Mary Gaitskill and Ken Kesey. But they are well hidden among pages and pages of trite, aggressively anti-conformist near-propaganda from second-tier artists and “philosophers.” The only really successful instruction the book provides is on how to put together a bad advice book. Here’s a quick summary:

1. Be sure to offend readers with your abrasive personality from the beginning by starting your acknowledgments with the sentence: “This may be the longest acknowledgments page in the history of publishing, but just deal with it.”

2. Don’t forget to include a French epigram by Jean Cocteau and definitely omit the translation so as to alienate all your “non-intellectual” readers.

3. Include several contributors who begin their advice pieces by announcing how “advice” is stupid and should never be heeded; that way, your advice book will seem truly pointless. Include writer/translator Bruce Benderson, who begins with the words, “Take my advice. What an obnoxious imperative!” Then, title your book Take My Advice.

4. Do not fail to use pieces that aren’t advice at all, but merely venues for writers to wax nostalgic about their dangerously sexy, pulp-fiction pasts.

5. Fail to edit out trite pieces from uninteresting people, especially such words of wisdom as pin-up model Bettie Page’s: “Stop thinking you know it all; you will discover as you get older that you have much to learn.”

6. Also fail to edit out trite pieces from extremely fascinating people, such as artist Cindy Sherman: “Whether you go to college or get a job, after finishing high school, MOVE OUT of your PARENTS’ HOUSE.”

7. Make up for lack of substance with an excess of really cool fonts.

8. Dilute the quality of your book by putting spectacular pieces beside hackneyed ones. That way, when poet Rita Dove provides you with gorgeously written advice to a young writer—“Writing poetry is one way of singing, of molding the ache of life into a beautiful shape”—it will quickly be forgotten in light of model/artist Vera Countess von Lehndorff’s vacant words a few pages later: “Life is like a bubble floating on the wind. It can vanish any moment.” Make your readers bemoan the fact that with more selective editing, this book could have been interesting, moving and downright good.

Beyond bad editing, Take My Advice suffers because most of its contributors are “writers” of some sort, while the rest fall into the unfortunate artist/philosopher/radical category. The book might have benefited from the input of at least a handful of people who weren’t smoking whole forests of pot or burning bras thirty years ago.

Hoping to get more substantial, practical advice that didn’t have to do with anarchy or Eastern religions, I asked several Harvard professors to provide their own wisdom for the next generation. As it turns out, it was the scientists—such as Professor of Physics Gerald Gabrielse and Professor James J. McCarthy, Head Tutor of the Environmental Science and Public Policy Department—who supplied the substance and the thoughtful reflection that Harmon’s literati lacked.

For example, self-proclaimed “confrontationist” and artist Lydia Lunch provides Take My Advice’s environmental guidance, encouraging us to carpool because “why put hard-earned cash into the hands of greedy monopolists whose sole goal is to rape the planet and rob her of her bodily fluids?” Although her heart is in the right place, her radical, anti-establishment language may put off the very audience she seeks to affect. Meanwhile, McCarthy, one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, addresses global warming in his advice. Rather than preach fluff, he gives solid evidencae of its far-reaching effects and convincingly argues for our capacity for action.

Gabrielse, who teaches the popular Science-A course “Reality Physics,” provides optimistic advice tinged with wistfulness for the 60s. But what separates him from the nostalgic contributors to Take My Advice is his sense of balance regarding the past, and his willingness—especially manifested through his cutting-edge scientific research—to “live in the now” after drawing what lessons he can from bygone years. This balance is what activist John Zerzan lacks in his contribution, which rails against “the cancer-like domination of technology” and ends with a revolutionary invitation to “come alive and fight!”

Perhaps if the writers in Take My Advice had approached their task more equably, as did McCarthy and Gabrielse, the book would have been a lot more than what it is: a mass of tired rhetoric and over-romanticized memories of a more naïve time.

Pearls of Wisdom