Back in the late '90s, when our kids were small and our lives felt hectic and borderline out of control (and sometimes, really, completely over-the-edge out of control), Little Sister and I used to joke about writing a book of life advice full of lessons culled from doing everything exactly the "wrong" way. We planned to call it What Not To Do because while we hadn't stumbled on much of what worked, we sure as hell knew what didn't.
About a third of the way through This Is How, Augusten Burroughs flashes what could be considered the official membership card of the What Not To Do school of advice-giving when he says, "I am a complete and total fuckup. Which is why I am equipped to write this book and tell you how to live."
Much of Burroughs's own particular training in what not to do is chronicled in his previous books, including Running With Scissors and Dry, many of which I've read and a few of which I count among my ever-changing top 10 (or top 20) favorites of all time. The Burroughs-of-the-page possesses a degree of self-awareness that comes from not taking oneself too seriously. His writing is full of penetrating observations about human nature--most especially his own, delivered in a darkly humorous, sometimes even sarcastic, style. These observations sometimes feel brutally honest, but never unkind because they are shot through with compassion and acceptance of the inevitability of human failure.
When I learned that Burroughs's newest effort was a book of advice, I wasn't sure what to expect. That the title font on the book's front cover is vaguely reminiscent of the lettering painted on the side of a nineteenth century traveling snake oil salesman's carriage led me to suspect that Burroughs's tongue was lodged firmly in cheek as he dispensed the cure-alls to be found in these pages. And, too, the trademark Burroughs tone did not seem likely to lend itself to sincerity so I was more than half-expecting a satire or even an exposé of the self-help industry. Instead, I got a book of real advice that is both cynical and sincere, humorous, helpful and deeply human--and above all bluntly truthful.
This Is How, is a self-help book so thorough that its subtitle1 runs to over twenty words, with chapters such as "How To Fail" and "How To Feel Less Regret" and "How To Stop Being Afraid Of Your Anger." The book opens with the chapter (and possible inspiration for the entire book) "How To Ride In An Elevator," in which Burroughs lets loose a bit of a rant about the affirmations and power of positive thinking mantras that are the foundation of many self-help books and programs. Burroughs dismisses affirmations as "the psychological equivalent of sprinkling baby powder on top of the turd your puppy has left on the carpet."
For anyone who picked up This Is How expecting just another feel-good, spoonful-of-sugar-so-the-medicine goes down sort of self-help offering, that opening chapter serves as notice that they've come to the wrong book. Anyone brave enough to stick around will discover a book full of bits of wisdom gained from keen observation and hard living, from making mistakes and recovering from them (or learning to live with them). It is a wildly quotable book--I carried a pad of bright orange Post-It page markers with me the whole time I was reading the book and ended up getting horrible writer's cramp copying down all the quotations that caught my eye.
That quotability, enjoyable though it was for a quote geek such as myself, makes for some bumpy reading at times. It is repetitive in spots and there are whole sections that are comprised of sound-bite-like snippets with little or no transition between them. In places it feels as though Burroughs took years worth of notes he'd made to himself on napkins and backs of envelopes, shuffled them and transcribed them in that order. Many of the chapters lack conclusive endings; Burroughs seems to wander off mid-thought in a couple of places.
So frequently does this wandering off happen, I began to wonder if it was Burroughs subtle way of saying that there are no final right answers to most of these questions. The answers he does offer are some mixture of common sense and pure genius and many of them hit me with epiphanic force or at least with the ping of an epiphanette.2
Rare is the answer that struck me as off-key, but it did happen. In the chapter entitled "How To Get Over Your Addiction To The Past," Burroughs says, "Writing six autobiographical books is what freed me from my past." He then goes on to say that the books could've been cookbooks and he would still feel just as free because it was the act of writing, not the subject matter, that freed him. Writing kept him busy, he says, and "When you're busy, you lack the time to fondle your emotional baggage." As someone who doesn't feel a moment has been fully lived until it's been written about, this does not ring entirely true to me. And since Burroughs did write memoirs, and not cookbooks, we'll never know if it was the subject matter or the simple engagement that did the trick.
Another quibble was that in several chapters, there were variations on the theme of "It's simple, but it's not easy." He says this in different ways so many times that I began to think of it as some sort of incantation or chant--if we say it enough times, and spin in a circle under a full moon something magical will happen and everything will start to seem simpler than it actually is. Or maybe everything is actually simpler than I make it--there are certainly legions of people in my life who can attest to my capacity for overthinking.
What makes all of the advice not only valuable but palatable is that there is not one discernible ounce of arrogance in any of it. Burroughs is occasionally blunt, even forceful, in making his point, but he is never, ever smug. I think that lack of smugness is another of the hallmarks of the What Not To Do school of advice giving--and it's the one I love the most.
Masked Mom's One-Word Review: (Self-)Helpful.
1. This Is How: Help For The Self: Proven Aid In Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young And Old Alike.
2. "In general, I am not a big believer in epiphanies, I guess because I rarely have them, or if I do, they are usually not reliable. But just then, I had a ping. Ping! A measure of clarity, an epiphanette." ~~Jane Hamilton, Disobedience
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