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Attack of the Self-Help Gurus

By Lisa M. Puskarcik, Crimson Staff Writer

This year, the electronic elves at Barnes & Noble’s online bookstore have recommended an interesting compilation of biographical, fad diet, inspirational, and self-improvement books, offering a perfect book for each loved one on my holiday gift-giving list.

As I nauseatingly browsed through their catchy titles and adoring reviews, I began to question what types of people make these books so popular. But after a while, a more salient question emerged: what types of people write these books?

It takes a quirky kind of personality, a great deal of confidence and an ambitious entrepreneurial spirit to write a Self-Help, How to Live Your Life, or Generally Inspirational book, but far too many authors seem to think that they fit this bill.

Today, it seems like anybody who can put a couple decent personal anecdotes down on paper can find a niche and market themselves as an authority on life. Rudy Giuliani on leadership—fine. The newly released World According to Mr. Rogers—of course. Random no-names sans psychology degrees or against-all-odds success stories profiting at the expense of dubious consumers like me—you bet. The Barnes & Noble elves should be shocked and ashamed.

There are several sub-categories within this broad “improvement” genre that have particularly sparked my attention. One of these categories might be best titled “college expertise.” I’m always skeptical, though intrigued, by the college students or recent graduates who write such “how to” guides, especially the guides that don’t address a specific topic but instead provide a fluffy overview of college life from a single perspective.

And then there’s Rachel Greenwald’s book Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School, in which the author applies the skills that she learned at HBS to help the not necessarily desperate but slightly relationship-deficient woman find a man.

The book is interesting because it links the college expertise category with the “snag a man” category made popular by the best-selling dating book The Rules that ushered in the genre way back in 1995.

Any pop-psychology discussion is not complete without mention of the tell-it-like-it-is self-help guru Dr. Phil McGraw. I still don’t know what to make of Dr. Phil. He seems like a good guy to have on your side; he could be your big bald uncle, a family friend, or even an academic advisor (“Taking that 6th class? Get real!”).

The latest news about Dr. Phil, however, isn’t a new and clever piece of hard-assed wisdom; instead, it concerns the growing popularity of his son Jay McGraw. The development adds nepotism to a list of issues of authority and expertise among writers whose wisdom doesn’t extend beyond the college years.

Following in the footsteps of psychologist Stephen Covey’s son Sean, who published The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens, Jay, a third-year law student at Southern Methodist University, has published Life Strategies for Teens and more recently The Ultimate Weight Loss Solution for Teens; both books are spin-offs of his father’s “adult” volumes. Both in interviews and on his father’s show, Jay is charismatic, confident, and cute (in a wacky self-helper kind of way). He’s even a bit of a heartthrob, having been featured in last year’s People Magazine list of most eligible bachelors.

The young twenty-something has amassed a lot of power over teens, though his father would still like to describe his flesh-and-blood as your average young guy: “If he couldn’t bounce it, catch it, throw it or date it or eat it, he had no interest in it…”

This could be the beginning of a bitter father-son rivalry in the two men’s ongoing quest to become the ultimate self-help authority. Or maybe it’s a thinly veiled admission that even Dr. Phil himself can’t believe that people are actually looking to his son for “life strategies,” even if it’s just a list of foods to eat at a fast food restaurant.

As I add my selections to the Barnes & Noble e-checkout cart—carefully skimming the online book jackets for author credentials to make sure that all of the writers are much older and wiser than myself—I secretly hope no one would ever consider these books perfect for me.

Luckily, I’m not a teenager and thus technically can no longer identify with Jay McGraw’s life strategies or weight loss tips, as potentially life-altering as they may be. On the other hand, if I’m husbandless at age 35, I can rest assured that the elves will know who to call come Christmastime.

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