Sunday, December 30, 2012


This is gold! Liberace composed, sang and recorded a song based on the self-help message of Claude Bristol's The Magic of Believing. There are so many parts of fabulous about this that I really cannot begin. Just listen and enjoy:

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
 Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teasers:

"Infinite and Eternal Spirit of Good, give us renewed power to overcome all our defects. Give us renewed spirit of good-will to all our fellow beings. Give us faith, and make us see more and more clearly the law, the ways, the means, the methods, that shall bring us lasting health, peace, happiness and prosperity. Give us perfect trust in the law of eternal life." 

~ p. 16, "Thought Forces" by Prentice Mulford

Prentice Mulford was an early self-help writer who helped popularise the idea of  "mental science," a term still being used when I was working in a New Age bookstore in the 1990s. This is a specific prayer he suggests for individuals and groups interested in undertaking systematic silent prayer.

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks! :D

Monday, October 29, 2012

Swedenborgian Talk in Sydney, Friday 23rd November

One of the most formative philosophies in the self-help movement is that of Swedenborgianism. Many of the earliest writers in self-help were interested in the writings of Swedenborg or had direct links to the Swedenborgian New Church.
On the 23rd of November my dear friend Julian Duckworth, himself a Swedenborgian New Church Minister, is giving a really fascinating talk at the Swedenborg Centre in North Ryde. Here are the details:

Can we change who we are and if so, how?
Speaker: Julian Duckworth
FRIDAY 23TH NOVEMBER 2012 at 7.45pm
1 Avon Road, North Ryde
Cost: $7; concession $5 (including refreshments)

One of the great questions of all time is whether or not we human beings can change. That question throws up many others... What do we mean by "change"? Are we perhaps predisposed to be who we are by nature? And what exactly might that be? Is the fact that trying to change is so difficult pointing out that we can't or maybe that we are not trying hard enough? And why should we think about changing ourselves anyway? Can't I just be me?
We will take a good hard long look at this whole idea of us changing and try and keep a balance between reality and wishful thinking. We will draw in some spiritual points and also look at a few case-histories. And if we come to the point of thinking that we can change, we'll try and open up some possible ways.

Julian Duckworth is the Minister at the New Church in Roseville, a Swedenborgian-based church which sees the Bible and Christian teachings through Swedenborg’s spiritual writings. He has regularly presented talks at both the Swedenborg Centre and around New South Wales and further afield, and he enjoys spreading out to come into contact with many other rich and wholesome spiritual approaches, while valuing the Swedenborg base he feels privileged to have received.

Swedenborg Association of Australia Inc.
North Ryde Group - Telephone: (02) 9888 1066

Monday, October 22, 2012

Monday Blogcrawl

I have had a busy time recently talking about self-help, so I am feeling particularly reconnected to my research at the moment. Some interesting self-help stuff rom around the net this past week:

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The 4-Hour Workweek

Sometimes I think there is almost no point in writing about a book which is so huge and so much the subject of a publicity frenzy.
But The 4-Hour Workweek interests me because I see it in many ways as an artefact of a post-literate age. Apart from its physical form (and yes, I was reading the hardcover version) there is not much about the book that is standard. It owes a debt to the bizarre and genre-changing mind of Tom Peters in its random thoughts, insistent bold sections and bullet-pointed directions to real-time information which is destined to date and disappear. That said, reading this book was quite an exciting process, and I looked forward to returning to it. Its format also encouraged skipping, however, and leafing past whole pages that you could tell at a glance were irrelevant to your needs.

Since reading the book - somewhat belatedly, I'll admit - I have noticed just how completely Ferriss' ideas have sunk into the mainstream of management, marketing and workplace standards. He lead the way in the rejection of email for example, telling people to check it twice a day at most - a practice, incidentally, which has contributed a great deal to my own productivity. I have also heard more and more people talking about "geoarbitrage," a concept I think Ferriss has popularised.

Timothy Ferriss - image from

Apart from his obvious formulaic connections with Peters' work, it is hard to place Ferriss on a spectrum of self-help history. I mean, naturally he inherits all of the great traditions of American self-help literary culture, but his obsessions are so focused, and so peculiar, that it is hard to place him culturally, politically and in almost every other lit-crit way. He is, of course, a hyper-individualist and I am certain that critics like Micki McGee would have a great deal to say about his work on this front, but that is not so much my area of expertise.
As always, I am actually much more interested in text than subtext. I am fascinated by the advice he gives, buy the ideal world he seeks to create through his peculiar examples and  injunctions. There is an element of isolationism in his counsel. Ferriss the person seems to despise telephone calls and emails and any kind of un-solicited contact. I think this is a growing modern malaise, one which I recognise because I share it in large part. Ferriss wants to be left alone, and he advises his readers to pursue that same dream. By strictly limiting and controlling how we engage with the outside world, we gain some kind of internal control and can better guarantee the success of our outcomes. It is about living according to the priorities you set, and not those set by others and dictated through the medium of email and telephone calls. Indeed, Ferris admits to not checking his email for up to four weeks at a time, and says that by then most of the emergencies and problems he found described had already fixed themselves.
The final chapter of the book is very representative of the scrapbook-y nature of this text, which itself resulted from a series of blog posts. This last chapter is made up of emails from people telling Ferriss how much applying his techniques has changed their lives. Interestingly, many of these changed lives revolve around the freedom to travel and to work for oneself. Ferriss' acolytes are a restless bunch, privileging the experience of travel and the ability to work remotely while still earning big bucks.
Ultimately, The 4-Hour Workweek proved a very useful read, and I gleaned several good ideas from it which I have applied to my everyday life. I am also glad that I read it because of its popularity and influence. It really is the source of so much contemporary management-speak, so reading it will give you the upper hand when it comes to your next corporate retreat.
Quite entertaining and useful.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teasers:

"I know one woman who judges how alive she is by how sick she is. That is, by how many aches and pains she can count. She then keeps the aches and pains alive and well by continually talking about them to whomever she converses with. What she doesn't understand is that the more she talks about her aches and pains,  the more energy she gives them and the more she reinforces her illness."

~ p. 47 "Feelings Buried Alive Never Die" by Karol K. Truman

 PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks! :D

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

My Teasers:
"The real story is that you are an unlimited being. The real story is that the world and the universe are unlimited. There are worlds and possibilities that you cannot see, but all of them exist. You have to start telling a different story! You have to start telling the story of your amazing life, because whatever story you tell, good or bad, the law of attraction must make sure you receive it, and it will be the story of your life."

~ p. 111 "The Power" by Rhonda Byrne  

PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks! :D


Monday, September 10, 2012

Monday Blogcrawl

I wish I could stick to a schedule, I really do. I am brilliant at planning schedules, writing them down, organising them to the last minute, and then completely disregarding them. So, instead of sticking to my last plan, here are some self-helpish things from the past week:

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Monday Blogcrawl

When I worked at a New Age bookstore, one of the big sellers every year was Louise L. Hay's page-a-day inspirational calendar. Last year, at the Hay House I Can Do It! Conference I bought one for myself and one for my mum. It was the first time I'd ever owned one, and I did enjoy reading a new positive affirmation every day. My mother, too, loved it, and this year the first thing we did when we arrived at the 2012 conference was get our copy of next year's calendar. During the conference, Cheryl Richardson said she buys 100 copies every year to give away to friends, so it seems that plenty of people love this little calendar. Today's says "There is a new spring in my step," so let's spring into the internet to see what's been happening in the world of self-help:

Monday, August 20, 2012

Monday Blogcrawl

When I stroll around Sydney I often note the number of churches that have closed, the buildings turned into something else. I suppose it is inevitable; the western world has ceased to be interested in joining, and communal worship seems to be one of those things we have left behind. But still, sad to see whole communities disappear as their members enter nursing homes and their buildings fall into disrepair. I should start a theodiversity movement which seeks to restore forgotten sects and cults and ensure a diverse religious landscape. In the meantime, here are some things that might interest you from the World Wide Web:

Lots of argument this week about the behaviour of Buddhist monks in Thailand

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesday

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

Grab your current read
Open to a random page
Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

From: A Soft Place to Land: Life-Changing Moments of Wisdom and Grace by Maggie Hamilton

"Often those who live long in our hearts are life's improbable heroes. It is their willingness to venture outside the square that helps reawaken the hero in us all."

pg. 46

Monday, August 6, 2012

Monday Blogcrawl

A day never goes by when I don't employ at least some of the advice of Dale Carnegie. But more and more I am realising the wisdom of his advice to listen twice as much as you speak. I am by nature talkative, and I am also a showoff, so am inclined to babble. But when I am quieter I have realised that I am more interesting and people trust me and like me more. So this month I am trying to be quieter and to make more of an effort to listen and to remember what people tell me. Here are some interesting self-help-ey things from the web from the past week:

Recently deceased self-help superstar Stephen Covey (photo AP)

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Monday Blogcrawl

I wonder why I can't stick to any particular schedule. I am brilliant at dreaming them up, but when it comes to actually sticking to them,  then forget it. Please send me suggestions and solutions :-) Until then, here's a week of what's happening in self-help:

Friday, July 13, 2012

Reading Success Literature

Success is such a bold word, and one which is traditionally associated with the literature of self-help. The great magazine of the self-help movement is called Success, and it is a quality which perhaps best describes the way we all want to be seen this world: as successful people. Those approaching life with an attitude of self-development often choose to see the human journey as a series of successes, opting to maintain "an attitude of grattude" which triumphs at even the smallest gains. Success, so the self-help books tell us, is its own reward. And it seems as though this conviction has been a part of Western culture since antiquity. As the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius put it:

"Forward, as occasion offers. Never look round to see whether any shall note it... Be satisfied with success in even the smallest matter, and think that even such a result is no trifle."

So, here are a few books from my collection that specifically address success:

The Truth About Success and Motivation by Dr. Bob Montgomery - This 80s book by a Melbourne doctor is quite charming and gruff, and one of the few self-help books with a uniquely Australian voice. Dr. Bob thinks that being assertive might be the key to success.

50 Success Classics by Tom Butler-Bowden - The ultimate collection of books specifically about success, Butler-Bowden provides detailed precis of 50 of the best, providing an invaluable reading guide. In it he included the Chinese classic, Sun Tzu's The Art of War.

Your Success in Five Years or Less by Anita Bell - Another Australian, Anita Bell defines success in terms of real-estate investment culminating in financial independence. In it she describes how she bought her first block of land at the tender age of 16. Quite an amazing lady.

Authentic Success by Robert Holden - I heard Holden speak last year at the Hay House I Can Do It conference in Sydney and he was thoroughly charming. He's kind of cheating a bit here - he is asking the reader to re-define success so as to be able to live a calmer, more balanced life.

Character is Capital by Judy Hilkey - This is a fascinating academic study of the "success manuals" that were sold door to door in nineteenth century America. Hilkey tells us that these early success writers created in their texts a vision of a deeply polarised world which gave birth to a great anxiety about moving up in the world.

The Success Principles by Jack Canfield - Canfield is of course the man behind the Chicken Soup for the Soul franchise, and this enormous book is jam packed with practices and ideas that he claims will guarantee success. I  have actually read this book a few times, principally because it is well writen and constructed, and those ideas that I have actually put into place (shamefully few) actually seem to work. Canfield tells us that we should create our To Do lists the night before, just before we go to bed. This way we can start the day running, ticking off the items as we work toward our goals.

Success is Not an Accident by Tommy Newberry - Newberry says we need to write down really compelling goals in order to be successful. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

New Self-Help Books in July

I really do have to be bringing my thesis to a close some day soon, but that doesn't mean I am going to stop reading self-help books. Au contraire. Here is my latest pile, almost none of which are destined for inclusion in my dissertation. But I couldn't resist. From the top:

Happiness is Here and Now by V. Vajiramedhi - I bought this one in Thailand. It is a collection of questions and answers with a Thai Buddhist monk, packaged as self-help lifestyle advice. Quite good.

Meta-Secret: The Next Level by Mel Gill - No idea what this one is, but it is such an obvious cash in on The Secret franchise that I had to get it. Another purchase from Bangkok. 

Change Your View, Change Your Life by Ven. Acarya Thoon Khippapanyo - More Thai Buddhism packaged as self-help.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson - OK, I know this one is memoir, but I have been interested in how it is being presented as a kind of anti-self-help book..

The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley - This guy is really interesting, and I have been following him on-line for a while.

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill - Of course I have read this one over and over again - it is one of the principle reference points for my dissertation. But the two 70s paperback versions I own are literally falling apart, so I snapped up this nice hardcover version when I saw it on sale.

Break Through Pain by Shinzen Young - Purely for personal reasons.

High Mysticism by Emma Curtis Hopkins - The uninitiated might be asking why a book of this title is included in self-help, but Hopkins is very much the grandmother of the self-help movement, and until now I have only read one of her books (they are exceedingly difficult to get).  She was an associate of Mary Baker Eddy and called The Mother of New Thought.

This is How by Augusten Burroughs - Another very strange new release by a mainstream author who is trying to present (I think) some distilled self-help wisdom.

The Book of Awakening by Mark Nepo - Didn't Oprah have something to do with this?

Enchantment by Guy Kawasaki - I have been wanting to read this for about a year and finally I got a copy. Guy Kawasaki rocks.

Fell's Official Know-It-All Guide to Writing Bestsellers by Stanley J. Corwin - I'll let you know if it works.

The Prosperous Heart by The Prosperous Heart & Emma Lively - Cameron is, of course, the creative genius behind The Artist's Way. I always like to keep up with her work. 

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Stop Saying You're Fine by Mel Robbins

I first encountered Mel Robbins when I heard an interview with her on the CD that accompanies Success Magazine, and I resolved then and there to buy her book.

Of course, that resolve quickly faded, but when I was strolling through Kinokuniya at the Suria mall in Kuala Lumpur I saw a big pile of the book and I grabbed a copy. I then spent the next few days absolutely enthralled. I couldn't put the book down, and spent 4 days at a beach resort in Langkawi poring over its pages and taking copious notes. I am still working with the book, and though it has managed to make me feel enormously guilty (I will never look at the "Snooze" button in the same way again!), it has also caused me to assess some of my goals and life situations much more realistically.

The premise of the book is really a very old fashioned kind of tough-love - stop telling yourself that everything is hunky-dory. Your life is crap and the sooner you come to terms with the fact, the better suituated you will be to improve things. I must admit that it was a message I probably needed to hear just about now, when I have a whole pile of obligations but have been taking a very cavalier attitude towards them.

Robbins asks her readers to assess the excuses they use to stop themselves doing things. She is also expressing an idea I am beginning to encounter more and more in the newer self-help literature - don't trust your feelings. In fact, an almost guaranteed recipe for success is to act contrary to your feelings, because for must of us our feelings will always want us to give up and stop doing unpleasant things. Robbins says that his is exactly the point at which we should snap into action - the moment we don't want to do it should be the very moment we start. Only that way will we get done the things in life that need getting done to make sure we are successful.

Mel Robbins is in some ways negating the standard arguents of New Thought that permeate most self-help, making this book somewhat counter-cultural. She says that unless we are being completely realistic about our faults, shortcomings and failures, we are doomed to keep repeating them. Positive thinking and hoping for the best do not get things done - the only people who ever succeed in changing their lives for the better are those who frankly examine the areas in which they are failing and set about doing something about them.

Part of the charm - and the wisdom - of the book is that it's not about being perfect. Instead it is about being brave enough to have a go and resilient enough to deal with mistakes, messes and unexpected defeats. She gives the example of yoga clases - kids love them because the poses make them fall over and flop sideways and just generally lose their decorum. Adults fear them for precisely the same reasons, and approach the exercises with a grim-faced quest for perfection. If we are to truly enjoy ur lives and stretch ourselves (metaphorically) as much as we possibly can, then we need to be prepared to look like idiots in the name of experimentation.

Just as we are trapped by material conditions, we are perhaps even more trapped by the mental conditions that have emerged over a lifetime. We are caught in habits and routines which, while sometimes helpful and soothing, can also be destructive and suffocating. Robbins' ultimate call is for us to break free of the shackles of familiarity and try to live differently and see just what exactly we might become:

"Breaking out of a routine creates a "butterfly effect" in your life. You change one little thing about your day and it can set off an entire chain reaction. Every new element that you introduce into your life becomes a clue to help you create a new direction. Every new direction is a pivot poin in your life and a lever against inertia. Breaking out of a routine is not a brute-force exercise. You just need to wake up and notice."

Monday, June 25, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:
• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
My Teasers:

"One of the most important requirements for success, once you have decided what it is you want, is the quality of willingness. Successful people are willing to pay the price, whatever it is and for as long as it takes, until they achieve the results they desire."

~ p. 28, "No Excuses" by Brian Tracy

 PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT with either the link to your own Teaser Tuesdays post, or share your ‘teasers’ in a comment here (if you don’t have a blog). Thanks!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Magic of Believing

One of my claims about the self-help genre is that, broadly speaking, it attracts the same breadth of writing skill as any other genre.
That is to say, there are some badly written books and there are some well-written books and a great deal of books that fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. And while haters of self-help would like to believe that it is the last refuge of the talentless, in fact many self-help writers (including many of the most famous) are quite accomplished craftspeople capable of expressing their ideas clearly and concisely and possessed of a talent for anecdote and clear expression of metaphorical meaning. Many self-help writers succeed where some novelists fail - they are capable of writing about lofty subjects without appearing pretentious, preachy or moralistic.
One of the books that I rate highly for literary merit is Claude M. Bristol's classic The Magic of Believing. It is such a charming book  that I defy anyone to read it and not be a little convinced by his theories, or at least taken in by the wonderful stories and examples he gives in support o of his thesis.

And what is his thesis? That anything which we truly believe is capable of being achieved. It is not willpower, talent, luck or any other external condition that is essential to success. It is a firm belief in the achievement of our goals that ultimately leads us straight to them.
Originally published in 1948, The Magic of Believing was written by an old-school journalist who had served in World War Two but who had for many years harboured a secret interest in Theosophy and New Thought. He condensed his ideas down into this wonderfully readable little book which details how he came to his belief in the efficacy of mind power, and also the other people he has encountered in his life who have used the power of belief to create a life they love.
He peppers the book with hints as to how we can remain resolute in our belief in our success. He advocates, for example, the doodling of dollar signs in idle moments, in staring at yourself in the mirror and asserting your authority and power, and in writing down your goals and dreams on cards and putting them all about the house so that you can read over and reflect on them at any tiome. These self-same techniques are still taught today in self-help books, though people rarely acknowledge Bristol as the originator.
And in truth he probably wasn't the originator of most of the self-help techniques he espouses in The Magic of Believing. Right from the beginning he acknowledges that everything he presents has been learned somewhere else. The card technque, for example, dates back to the advice of Benjamin Franklin and the use of affirmations in front of the mirror has its roots in the techniques of French psychologist Emile Coue.
Bristols's great talent was in making many of these quite hoary old ideas seem fresh and accessible. He also imbues his writing with a pally and often funny masculine swagger, making some of his more implausible claims seem like commonsense.
He is a great one for employing the tropes of science, as was popular among all witers of his day. He is very impressed, too, with what was then the fledgling science of psychology, and claims that all of his assertions have a sound grounding in psychological study.He also posits hinself as something of a skeptic and a sophisticate. His world-weary tone was probably cultivated during his years as a police reporter, and he brings the same hard-boiled language to the ideas of New Thought and self-help, making The Magic of Believing quite a unique sounding book.
Donald Meyer, in his 1965 book The Positive Thinkers, described Bristol's book as  having:

"...mixed Eddington, Freud, psychosomatics, electroencephalography, telepathy, Emerson and a host of other sources into his explanation of all events whatsoever as "mind stuff," hypnotism and suggestion." 

The book was also a favourite of Phyllis Diller, as you can see in this clip:

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Library Books

Having come back from a long period abroad, it really is time for me to get my dissertation finished and ready for editing. My goal is for it to be more or less complete by the end of July (you heard it here, folks) and ready then to send to a proper editor who I (or at least, my research group) will be paying for. I want this thing to be absolutely ship-shape.
So I am back trawling the local libraries for liitle bits and pieces, overlooked books and hidden classics in the self-help field, and just generally things I might have missed in the past, during periods when I was intensely focused on one particular idea or topic.

So, from the Whitlam Library in Cabramatta (my local), I have brought home the following (from the top):

  • Stick to Your Dreams by Bill Allardyce and Steve Gray -  what I love about libraries is that you will frequently stumble upon self-published Australian stuff that would otherwise be impossible to find, or even know about. A note to self-publishers: for posterity's sake, please continue to donate your stuff to local libraries! Bill Allardyce seems to be a Victorian inventor and entrepreneur, and this is quite a lovely little book, which the front cover claims is a best-seller. 
  • Signposts for Life by Vicki Bennett - Bennett is a Queensland corporate trainer and motivational speaker who released a few popular self-help books in the 90s.
  • Supercoach by Michael Neill - Coaching seems to be pretty much dead as a self-help trope,  though it had a good enough innings. This is a 2009 Hay House book, and it really must be one of the last of the personal coahing books. 
  • A Whole New Mind by Daniel H. Pink - "Futurist" kind of books are always interesting, especially when read seven years down the tracks. In this 2005 book Pink posits a change in age, from information to conceptual. Self-help guru Po Bronson said this book was "mind-altering." We'll see. 
  • Thrive by Dan Buettner - Dr. Oz says it's a must-read, though I have never actually come across this author before. I hesitate to read it because it is endorsing a particular, trademarked, method, in this case the "Blue Zones Way." I have no idea what the "Blue Zones Way" is and in my experience these kinds of books leave you none the wiser. They are normally just extended sales pamphlets. I approach it with trepidation.  

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Currently Reading: The Magic

Rhonda Byrne is a self-help superstar. The once-obscure television producer from Australia became a household name in 2006 when she produced a simple talking-heads-style film about New Thought ideas and the Law of Attraction and released it as The Secret. Someone - it is not clear who - came up with a simply brilliant promotional campaign based on networks and influencers and releasing different versions of the film to key tastemakers and influencers. I worked in a New Age bookstore at the time, and remember dozens of people coming in and telling me how they had been given a version of a new film that was going to change the world....
It was a whisper-campaign that worked, and the film was quickly turned into a book which became a mega-seller which culminated in Byrne's appearance on Oprah. The Secret became a cultural artefact, and was ridiculed and scorned by people on all sides, all the while speaking in some way to the general public as it went on to sell millions of copies across the world.
Byrne has herself never been much of a self-promoter or even a public figure - she rarely gives interviews, and is something of an enigma. This year she has quietly released a new book called The Magic. Its emphasis is on gratitude and on the active expression of gratitude. This, says Byrne, is the key to a successful life. By actually invoking the words "thank you" we are employing a a metaphorical magic spell, hence the book's name.
For all of her critics and detractors (and they are myriad), Rhonda Byrne, or her team, is good at producing simple, clearly-expressed texts that communicate very well the basic tenets of New Thought, a religious idea that dates back to the 1860s. I am, in fact, a fan of Byrne's work, and I think she is one of the truly great post-modern authors, producing books that owe more to the traditions of television, film, advertising and  the oral traditions of Protestant Chrstian worship than to stale literary traditions and formats.
Though her message is repeated constantly, there is not an ounce of fat in The Magic - it has been edited to perfection and is an inspiring and entertaining read.
The central message of the book is that gratitude must be cultivated self-consciously. Byrne connects this to biblical narrative and the Western Mystery magical traditions, employing her usual scattershot approach to references, citations and quotes from across the canon of self-help.
I'm interested in the fact that this book kind of launched itself, with very little fanfare. I had no idea it even existed till I was browsing through Kinokuniya bookshop in Bangkok a month ago and saw a modest pile of the books on a well-placed table. Considering just how many copies of The Secret were sold, you would think the publisher would make more of a song and dance about a new book from the same author. Perhaps Byrne's famous reticence and shyness have an impact here. As it is, each new instalment in The Secret franchise seems like a surprise.
I call it a franchise deliberately. The Magic is designed and branded in such a way as  to advise the reader that this is an extension of The Secret. The cover art is an extension of The Secret's usual antique magical motif, and the first thing you see on the cover is the imprint of The Secret itself, above the title of the book. I think we are being presented with a series here, the publisher determined to remind the reader of the famous  book in order to sell this new one.
The book's format appeals to me because, unlike The Secret which was the presentation of quotes and ideas designed more for occasional inspiration than applied reading, The Magic is presented as a practical workbook, filled with 28 exercises designed to enhance the application of magical gratitude in your life.

"You will be captivated while you read this life-changing knowledge, but without practicing what you learn, the knowledge will slip through your fingers..."

It's an interesting exercise because there is not a great deal of literature that deals with the concept of gratitude as an exercise in mental and spiritual development.
Interestingly, a prominent Australian writer contacted me recently to tell me he has been working his way through The Magic and getting a great deal from it, because it was dealing in concepts and techniques that he had never actively considered before.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Catherine Ponder and the Rich Jesus

I am still working on my The Secret chapter -  it is the final chapter and seems as though it will never end.
One of the authors that Rhonda Byrne urges people to read is Catherine Ponder, who, she says, teaches the truth of the Bible stories - that Jesus, the prophets and patriarchs were in fact wealthy people who despised poverty.

When I worked in a New Age bookshop in Sydney in the 90s and 2000s Ponder's books were very popular, despite their high price. Published by DeVorss publications, Catherine Ponder is a Unity minister (ordained in 1956) who wrote quite a number of books, all based around her particular reading of the Bible as a prosperity text. After her endorsement in The Secret, it seems as though her books have reached a whole new generation of readership, and I notice that the Rev. Dr. Barbara King, one of my favourite women in the world, is teaching at the moment a course based on Ponder's books at her New Thought-based Hillside Chapel in Atlanta, Georgia.
I have gone back to look at Catherine Ponder's book The Dynamic Laws of Prosperity - a substantial text at 430pp. Ponder's style is folksy and engaging, and highly reminiscent of the earlier books of Florence Scovel Shinn. The book is filled with miraculous stories of people who have applied the techniques of New Thought in  their lives and achieved marvellous and unexpected results, usually in the shape of improved finances, work opportunities and greater prosperity. Ponder urges her readers to re-awaken to older dreams of greatness, happiness and wealth, and to employ the usual New Thought technologies of visualisation and affirmation to progress towards greatness. 
I'm not sure that Ponder needed to write quite as many books on the same theme as she did - the central message is repeated ad infinitum - but I have no doubt that she was sincere in her beliefs and her passion and enthusiasm is patent in her writing style. Hers was a thoroughly New Thought vision of the possibility of all people to be great, to be rich and happy and ultimately useful. There is, as well, something of the old-fashioned self-help notion of thrift and financial indepenedence, not to mention self-responsibility. The Ponderian subject is financially independent, working hard to enjoy good and beautiful things and to help others who may be less fortunate.
Ponder sees the individual as the primary source of their own poverty. The natural state is one of wealth, and if we would only stand aside we would allow the Universe to assert its own inevitable prosperity in our lives once again. She writes:

"In order to become financially independent, to the extent of having a constant financial income, it is necessary to discard a number of negative attitudes."

For Ponder, the first step towards wealth is the reorganisation of the mind, filling it with images of the  things we want and of the limitless possibilities before us. No wonder she is endorsed so heartily in The Secret.

  • For more information about Florence Scovel Shinn, one of Ponder's principle influences, look here
  • To read more about Catherine Ponder on her publisher's website, look here
  • An interview with Rhonda Byrne, creator of The Secret

Friday, January 20, 2012

Chicken Soup for the Soul in Vietnamese

My intense interest in the reading of American self-help in Asia sees me haunting bookstores in Ho Chi Minh City, Phnom Penh and Bangkok, seeing just what is translated, how it is presented, and who is buying it.

The Chicken Soup for the Soul books are ubiquitous in Vietnam. In my book Destination Saigon I mention how young students in Hanoi sit around the gardens of the Temple of Literature reading them. Bookstores carry shelves full of them, and they are always presented in bilingual editions. I suspect the simplicity of their stories has great appeal for the English-language learner.

Interestingly, they seem to have received endorsement from all of the main religions, because I have seen them for sale in Catholic and Buddhist bookstores alike.

Vietnamese friends who read them, even quite uneducated and unsophisticated people, are enthralled by the stories in the books and absolutely love them. I once watched a young fisherman lie down and read a pile of them in one afternoon, completely absorbed. When I ased him what he thought of them, he said: "They're brilliant. The most fascinating stories of foreigners and the amazing things they do. Foreigners are so interesting..." For him it was total escapism, an adventure in the exotic. The themes and messages of the stories seemed to have no relevance to his actual life. He was reading them as fantasy.