Some of Mr. Brinkmann’s prompts, such as contemplating your own mortality daily, are comically doomy. In “Sack Your Coach,” a chapter about severing the ties with your therapist, he writes: “Consider sacking your coach and making friends with him instead. Perhaps buy the coach a ticket to a museum, and ask what lessons life has to offer if you direct your gaze outward instead of inward.”
In the chapter “Dwell on the Past,” he writes: “When someone presents plans for innovation and ‘visions’ for the future, tell them that everything was better in the old days. Explain to them that the idea of ‘progress’ is only a few hundred years old — and is, in fact, destructive.”
O, to have a camera to capture earnest Brinkmann adherents as they respond to their office manager’s explanation of new petty-cash accounting procedures with, “You know, the idea of progress is only a few hundred years old.” This reality-based Bravo series practically writes itself. Or what about a coffee-table book comprising photos of the moment when therapists are terminated by their patients and handed tickets to a Seurat show? It could be a glorious new direction for the “Humans of New York” author, Brandon Stanton.
That said, Mr. Brinkmann distinguishes himself in the anti-improvement genre by taking an essayistic approach rather than a how-to one and by seamlessly weaving into his arguments the philosophies and writings of thinkers like the Stoics, the psychologist Barbara S. Held and the novelist Haruki Murakami. But more important, Mr. Brinkmann brings to the genre a refreshing dose of classical restraint, particularly as it relates to tone. To wit, his book, unlike Mr. Manson’s, does not refer to its reader as “dumbass.”
Which brings us to the question: What’s with all the F-bombs, guys? Ms. Knight’s book, patterned after “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo, is essentially a decluttering guide, but for a life, not a residence. Ms. Knight told The Toronto Star that she’d counted how many times she had used the obscenity in her slim book “and it’s something like 732.” She continued: “Somebody asked me if I had beat ‘The Wolf of Wall Street,’ so I Googled and found that ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ used the [expletive] like, 500-and-something times. So I have well exceeded.” We all have our goals.
The year 2014 saw the publication of “Good Manners for Nice People” who sometimes utter this particular expletive; 2015 brought “One Shrink’s Practical Advice for Managing All Life’s Impossible Situations” (again, a subtitle) and 2016 brought “Get Out of Your Head and Into Your Life” with even more creative obscenity affixed beforehand. Why can’t these writers use their indoor voice? It would be easy to blame network television’s efforts to keep up with the hipness of premium cable, or to the success of Adam Mansbach’s one-joke bedtime manual for children, or to the reduced presence of gatekeepers in a world in which the president posts policy on Twitter that he has not run by his advisers.
But I prefer to look at the writing style of the self-help genre itself. Take a sample from the Manson book. He’ll make an interesting point, such as: “The desire for more positive experience is itself a negative experience. And, paradoxically, the acceptance of one’s negative experience is itself a positive experience,” but he indents it on the page as a pull-quote, and runs it in bold type. Then he adds, “I’ll give you a minute to unpretzel your brain and maybe read that again” — and then he restates the premise, only this time in italics. In such an ecology, the only possible intensifier is a curse word. Or maybe 732 of them.
I love well-deployed profanity. But while a dose of gritty humanity is a welcome contrast to the earnestness of Ms. Kondo or the mindfulness of the stress expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, a 732-unit-tall mountain of it suggests a lack of imagination. Or a cumulative juggernaut that is operating outside the purlieus of human agency.
Come September, when Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishes Robert I. Sutton’s “The [Expletive] Survival Guide,” whose title uses coarse English to refer to “a jerk,” and which is a follow-up to his book “The No [Expletive] Rule,” l expect further escalation in this particular arms race. I’m imagining that the book will reach out and punch its reader in the kisser. Or maybe it will cut off its nose to spite its own face.
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