The self-help book, or the how-to-live-life book, has consistently turned me off. I’ve recently asked myself if this is because my ego is occasionally fond of telling me, “Don’t listen to what anyone else has to say. We know it all, don’t we?” But I know to shoot my ego down when it starts getting too big for its britches, so ego alone can’t account for my self-help loathing.
Instead, I’ve discovered that my deep-seated dislike for the entire genre stems from the Orwellian prospect of what would happen if enough people read, and followed, the same self-help books. For instance, if our whole country were to follow the creeds outlined in Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, what kind of country would we become? It would be a battle-of-the-sexes misunderstanding from start to finish—which works well with a laugh-track on sitcom television, but doesn’t play so nicely in real life. Or how about the how-to book I was handed in the one and only journalism class I ever took: How to Write Articles That Sell. If our entire media built itself upon the tenets of this book (and I’m beginning to wonder if that isn’t so far from the truth), then we’d all be reading about nothing but psychotic drag-queens on crystal meth who spend their days kidnapping family pets. That story has it all— sexual taboos, drugs and cute animals.
No, any book that attempts to offer a panacea to all who read it is on the wrong track, as the very foundation of the book is lain on the fallacy that what works for one person will work for another. Some people like the Bible. Some people like the Koran. And some people like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Some like parts of all three. The point is, when it comes to literature that will better the reader, anyone who attempts to sell you a one-size-fits-all scenario is nothing more than a cut-rate snake oil salesman.
With this in mind, I approached Al Franken’s Oh, the Things I Know! as a skeptic. The tagline embossed on the book jacket reads “A Guide To Success, Or, Failing That, Happiness.” But Franken refuses to fall into the self-help trap. From the outset, he insists that his book is no cure-all. Instead, he claims that the book will help where it can through wisdom and humor, but that no dogma will work for each reader. “My goal in this book,” Franken writes, “is to avoid magical thinking of the sort offered by my colleagues in the advice game. Yes, I might sell more books if I made outlandish promises such as those in the book Eat Healthy, Feel Better, but I would rather tell the truth, unpleasant though it may be, and sell fewer books, than lie to you about your potential like other self-help writers, such as the Dalai Lama.”
Franken’s book is filled with this kind of wry wit. Each chapter title begins with the exclamation “Oh,” as in, “Oh, the Things You’ll Keep Telling Yourself,” “Oh, the Advice You Should Ignore,” and my personal favorite, “Oh, If You’re Involved in Hardcore Bondage and Discipline, You Should Have a ‘Safeword.’” In addition to borrowing from the self-help genre’s lust for repetitive chapter titles, Franken also utilizes the form’s infamous “chapter summary.” However, Franken’s chapter summaries are more than a simple restatement of the facts. They are, quite simply, hilarious. A good example is the wrap-up of the chapter titled, “Oh, the Houses You Will Covet and The Homeowners You’ll Envy.” Franken finishes off the chapter with this summation: “Make a list of the things you do have. Then think of the people who don’t have those things. There’s no point in making a list of them, since they number in the billions. Then make a list of the things you actually need. Here, I’ll make it for you. Food, clothes, shelter. Now, don’t you feel like an asshole?”
At its best, Oh, the Things I Know! reveals something of the author—who, for those of you just returning from Siberian exile or lengthy space voyages, is arguably most famous for his portrayal of patchily rehabilitated self-help talk show host Stuart Smalley. Particularly funny, in this regard, and in keeping with his most famous SNL character, is Franken’s recognition of his own failures. A frequent motivational speaker, Franken vividly portrays his two least successful performances. One was at Hartford State Technical College, a speech which began, “When I was first asked to speak at Hartford State Technical College, I jumped at the opportunity. Because, you see, I thought I had been asked to speak at Harvard, which would have been quite an honor. But instead I am here with you, the nation’s future air conditioner repairmen. Let’s try to make the best of it.” It goes on until Franken declares, “And please remember that I prepared this speech for Harvard students, so it will probably be way over your heads”—at which point, Franken writes, “the booing began.” He also documents a Clark University talk during which he announced that he was going to die of pancreatic cancer in six months, finishing up by saying, “You have received a far harsher judgement. You have been sentenced to life. Without parole.” It later turned out that Franken was misdiagnosed, which segues into a tidbit of actual self-help advice: Always get a second opinion.
Oh, the Things I Know! is a circumspect read, covering several facets of life from the immediate postgraduate years all the way up to “the nursing home you’ll wind up in.” Each chapter will bring at least a chuckle; some will bring a bellow. And, interspliced with these moments of amusement, there actually is some good advice to be found—assuming you adhere to the ground rule that panaceas be banished.