Tom Tiede is a cranky old man whose pet peeves would fill a menagerie.
A retired journalist who admits to 60, Tiede can't stand baby boomers, whom he contemptuously calls "Booms" and describes in overheated prose as "the first New World narcissistic class to have about it the full whiff of the armpit." He has no time for psychotherapists or for obtaining "professional help," since, after all, "'professionals' are merely people–they are as mystified by relationships as everyone else (except when they write books)." The Bible, religious belief and Christianity all attract his scorn. And he views lawyers as a special evil, "Jack Kevorkian in better suits."
But, as the full title of this self-indulgent rant suggests, Tiede hates self-help books most of all. And he's not shy about expressing his antipathy. "Self-improvement books are narcotics in ink," he declares in "Magic Bullets," the chapter that opens Self-Help Nation. "You'd do better selling crack than leafing through massifs of fix-up advice." In such books, he writes, "the inspiration is usually overestimated, the promise is usually broken." And, as for you, dear reader: "If you are simple enough to buy a self-help book, you may be congenitally programmed to fail."
Such grandiose overstatement is Tiede's favored mode of argumentation. But where's his evidence? It's at least conceivable that having the humility and motivation to buy a self-help book is a good sign–an index of readiness for self-examination and change. It's no accident that most self-help books are geared toward–and purchased by–women, who are eager (sometimes overly so) to modify themselves as society demands. Many such books try to assist women in dealing with the type of man Tiede represents in caricature–someone who is loath to seek any help at all.
In picking on self-help books, the author has chosen a target as wide as, well, America. And he's clearly right about a few things: The wave of self-help books has become tidal, flooding an oversaturated market. As a group, these books are too frequently banal and repetitive–not only of one another but of an author's own previous works. The literature of self-help seems to propagate as if dosed with fertility hormones, spawning endless second helpings of Chicken Soup and an infinity of Mars/Venus encounters. Many self-help books are mawkish, right-wing in their outlook and repressive toward women. Others are New Agey, naïve, imbued with religious hokum or just plain unhelpful.
But still… One can concede that most of these books are rather less than literary masterpieces, yet be grateful that the genre exists. While denouncing such obvious targets as Dr. Laura and M. Scott Peck, Tiede gives short shrift to the reality that self-help books, not unlike the therapists and gurus who write them, run the gamut from brilliantly insightful to pedestrian and worse.