The Week in Self-Help
Every morning the postman delivers a sack of new books to the LRB office. The bulk of them turn out to be either books about religion or self-help books, which may say something about the apocalyptic mood of the publishing industry. The categories often overlap, as in The Truth Within by Gavin Flood, ‘a history of inwardness in Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism’: religion can put you in touch with ‘a deeper, more fundamental, more authentic self’. The rest of this week's religious haul includes the Oxford Handbook of Quaker Studies and a collection of essays on Habermas and religion. There’s less variation in the self-help books, as the genre creeps forwards fad by fad. Pace Flood, the new hot topic is outwardness: help yourself by understanding others.
According to Nicholas Epley’s Mind-wise we are ‘mind readers’ who are able to ‘feel the indignity’ of sleeping rough merely by looking at a tramp and registering that he has no shoes, and no bed, and hasn’t washed for a while. We come to know the tramp’s ‘mind’, which is remarkable because we’ve ‘never actually seen a belief, smelled an attitude, or poked a feeling.’ We are psychics. The problem is our ‘sixth sense’ can malfunction, as George W. Bush’s did when he met Putin and ‘felt like he had learned a great deal about the inner “soul” of this former KGB agent by reading his behaviour’. Epley’s book goes on to recommend techniques for honing our psychic abilities so that we can at least distinguish people with souls from people without. He doesn’t consider the possibility that the tramp might have been a secret agent too.
In The Tell, Matthew Hertenstein uses a poker analogy for the things that tip us off to the tramp’s discomfort or Putin’s strong sense of fairness. Tells aren’t anything to do with ‘palm-reading or fortune-telling’, Hertenstein says, though he calls people who are really good at analysing them ‘truth wizards’. He quotes Sherlock Holmes: ‘I have trained myself to notice what I see.’ Tells that you might not pick up on, unless you’ve read Hertenstein’s book, include disorganisation in children, which is a sign that they are likely ‘to develop a form of psychopathology years later’.
Gary Klein’s buzzword, in Seeing What Others Don’t, is ‘insight’. Insight is what you get from spotting a tell or, in Epley’s terminology, from reading someone’s mind. Klein opens his book with a story about a cop who figured out that a man smoking in a brand new BMW must have stolen the car. ‘It feels good,’ Klein writes, ‘to document times when people like the young police officer make astute observations.’ You say astute observation, I say lucky guess: maybe the guy just really needed a cigarette; maybe of his collection of brand new BMWs that one was his least favourite. He could have been a secret agent.
What does the fact that we received in one week three books that all say the same thing ‘tell’ us? Are Epley, Hertenstein and Klein all truth wizards, or merely members of the same coven? And what will next week bring? Perhaps it will turn out that we feel more alive – or ‘are better able to assert our inner vibrancy’ – when we’re not being told how to breathe.