The book: Let Your Mind Alone by James Thurber.
Why did I choose this book: Because I cannot seem to make myself finish my officially designated next self-help book? But also because I read this as a child and think about it all the time — I may have read this, James Thurber’s survey of the self-help landscape of 1937, before I read any actual self-help books. Because it’s an awesome and hilarious take-down of self-help books, but also because as a child I was desperate to make myself over and better (a desperation that has not gone anywhere over time, but has been mildly tempered by resignation to the difficulty of the task). And even though I knew this book was a take-down and it made me laugh a lot, I was frantically trying to snatch from it crumbs of insight into how I could make myself better. I don’t know if I thought those crumbs would come from Thurber himself or from the authors he makes fun of or if I was just prepared to take any guidance on offer, but either way it imprinted itself into me. If you are unhappy enough, any book can be a self-help book.
In some ways, it’s tempting for me to think of Thurber as aligned with the premise of this blog, which is about self-help when you have dark suspicions that it’s actually the world that should be changing. But he’s not, not really, I don’t think. Because I guess I think the project of trying to figure out a better way to exist in the world, whether that involves changing yourself or the world, is a worthwhile one, even if it’s doomed to failure. And if James Thurber thought that, he’s not letting on.
Is the author smart/do they know things I don’t: The author is James Thurber. Yes.
Does the main idea seem true: That the world today is no place for the streamlined mind? I mean, sure, but I’m a self-interested party, given my own lack of streamlining. That James Thurber is funnier than anyone ever but in a way which also makes you confront the essential vacuum at the core of existence? Yes.
Moment where I was like, oh boy, here we go again: I feel like the casual misogyny of Thurber is pretty well documented, but I had forgotten how unavoidable the racism was. And although obviously I’m not endorsing misogyny, you could at least say that it’s central to something serious that Thurber is trying to say about the difficulties of people communicating with each other. It doesn’t make it better, exactly, but it makes it feel less casually cruel.
Something awesome about this book: Everything except the above, basically. Here is a sample: “I have, to be sure, encountered men with complexes. There was, for example, Marvin Belt. He had a complex about airplanes that was quite interesting. He was not afraid of machinery, or high places, or of crashes.” When I started typing this I suddenly realized that this was exactly the rhythm of the part of You Never Even Called Me By My Name, where he says, “mama or trains or trucks or prison or getting drunk.” Thurber goes on to say, “He was simply afraid that the pilot of any plane he got into might lose his mind.” I have read Let Your Mind Alone probably twenty times and every time I fail to see this coming and every time it makes me laugh.
Thing That I Would Like To See The Numbers On, Sir: He has this whole riff about how unlikely it is that a plan to get to Italy by putting aside coins and and buying phrase books and babysitting children will actually succeed in getting anybody to Italy and, conversely, how much more satisfactory it is to sit by the fire reading “The Ring and the Book.” And I am with him up until that point, but then he says, “And in the end it will probably be me who sends you a postcard from Italy, which you can put between the pages of the small grammar or the phrase book,” and I balk. Years of being a daydreaming and non-proactive person have left me convinced that that way of being has its virtues, but years of watching organized people I know do things in an organized way have also left me reluctantly convinced that organization can accomplish things. You might convince me that the honors work out even, and you can certainly convince me that James Thurber, who was a genius, was capable of getting to Italy, but you cannot convince me that overall daydreaming is inherently more likely to be successful than other ways of being in the worl.
He also spends a certain number of words making fun of advice in one of the books that involves sending postcards to yourself to remember things, and I was laughing a lot but also I do send myself post-dated emails to remind myself to do things, so that was a little uncomfortable.
Useful(?) Counter-programming: “Life is real! Life is earnest!”
Next [Indefinite Period Of Time’s] Book: Good Habits, Bad Habits by Wendy Wood, which I still haven’t finished, as noted above.
A Horrifying Side-Note: I am now older than James Thurber was when he wrote this.