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Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture Hardcover – January 7, 2014

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

This book will not make you healthier, wealthier, or better looking. Instead, it offers a riff on the self-help industry—and an industry it is, with brands, magnates, and big bucks spent on programs and merchandise. With an eye for irony, Lamb-Shapiro attends various self-help functions, from a fear-of-flying class to a hot-coal walk, and works her way through the literature. She is critical of the genre’s one-size-fits-all approach, which emphasizes the individual’s responsibility for bad situations, even those seemingly beyond one’s control. But what started as an exploration of the irrepressible self-help culture quickly became personal. Those interested in self-help are, after all, seeking something—in Lamb-Shapiro’s case, coming to terms with the consequences of her mother’s death when she was a small child. The result is two-toned, both a surface ramble through parts of the shiny but hollow self-help empire and a personal reflection on her disastrous childhood. Ultimately, the latter provides her most lasting insight, that when it comes to human goals and desires, there are no simple answers. --Bridget Thoreson

From Bookforum

Promise Land is very much a book of the publishing zeitgeist—the gimmicky premise, the mash-up of genres—and risks coming off as clichéd. But Lamb-Shapiro’s authorial presence rescues it from that fate. Her approach to the material is skeptical but not cynical; her personal disclosures feel generous rather than exhibitionistic; and she writes in a mordant, deadpan voice with impeccable economy and timing. —Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (January 7, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1439100195
  • ISBN-13: 978-1439100196
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #192,028 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro was born in Washington D.C. in 1977. She is a graduate of Brown (BA) and Columbia (MFA) and has written fiction and non-fiction for McSweeney's, The Believer, Open City, Index Magazine, and other publications. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and New York Foundation for the Arts. She lives in New York City with an eight-year-old puggle.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

37 of 39 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 7, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Whatever you're expecting from this book, it probably won't be the unusual combination of genres that make up Promise Land. I thought it might be like the very entertaining Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone by Beth Lisick, an account of her year getting help from celebrity experts in their fields: Richard Simmons, Suze Orman, Julie Morgenstern, and more. Although Helping Me Help Myself is a personal account, you do get to learn a lot about the expensive seminars and personal consultations.

In Promise Land, Jessica Lamb-Shapiro also tries some seminars, but mainly sticks with self-help books. She goes into the history of self-help in America, and discovers that there's really nothing new under the self-help sun. Apparently, we Americans have always been attracted to self-help, ever since Ben Franklin included his own tips on self-improvement in his Autobiography.

What will make you either love or hate Promise Land though, is Lamb-Shapiro's personal story. It becomes clear as the book progresses that Lamb-Shapiro's mother died when Lamb-Shapiro was only two years old and her father, a psychologist, did his best to deal with the loss of his wife and to take care of his young daughter. As she learns more about the circumstances of her mother's death during the course of writing the book, it becomes less an academic pursuit of knowledge and more a personal search for a way to deal with the loss from thirty years ago.

If I had known the sad turn the book was going to take, I would not have read it, but as it turned out, Lamb-Shapiro's humor and world-weary attitude kept me reading and by the end I was quite touched by the way she and her father began to deal more openly with something that had been off-limits for so many years.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Jay Oza on February 4, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Why should you read this book?

1) To get a fair analysis of the self-help culture from its early beginnings; you get a history of the self-help culture that is well researched.
2) You learn about the loving relationship between a daughter and her father which is very well written and honesty told.
3) You also find out that author is not someone who is just writing about self-help, she, in fact, is need of self-help herself, such as her fear of flying and coming to terms with her grief.
4) The book will make you laugh, think, understand and even shed a tear or two.

Though the book is short, it does cover a lot of ground and, in the hands of an excellent writer, Lamb-Shapiro makes it work and presents a deeply personal story and at the same time provides a fair look at the self-help culture.

I liked this book, therefore, I highly recommend it.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By TChris TOP 500 REVIEWER on February 23, 2014
Format: Hardcover
Once the exclusive province of books, the self-help industry has expanded to seminars, coaches, facilitators, and other enterprises (some resembling Ponzi schemes) that are dedicated to charging fees in exchange for telling people how to achieve goals or live better lives. You can even email questions to self-help advisers who will answer them for a fee. Although it doesn't seem like "self" help if you are paying a coach to tell you what to do, the industry will happily teach you how to self-help your way to romance, popularity, self-esteem, emotional wellness, satisfying sex, good health, a higher income, a more pleasing body shape, well-behaved children, and pretty much anything else you think you need.

Self-help is nothing new. As Jessica Lamb-Shapiro reminds us, Emerson and Ben Franklin provided the kind of advice that is now regarded as self-help. Thomas Jefferson and Thoreau stressed the power of positive thinking. "Success literature" (covering everything from etiquette to proper diet) thrived during the Victorian era and Samuel Smiles' 1859 self-improvement guide, Self-Help, was hugely popular.

The one-size-fits-all advice that self-help books dispense tends to be superficial, if not glib, in denial of the idiosyncratic diversity of human existence. They are filled with advice that is contradictory and flat-out wrong. They encourage unrealistic expectations (no matter how much you want to achieve a goal, some goals are unattainable unless you have talent). They are based on specious theories -- e.g., "the law of attraction": if you think really really hard about something you want, it will come to you -- that are wholly unsupported by evidence or rationality.
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15 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Toni Campbell on January 13, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
I used to be an aficionado of self-help books. Working in a bookstore put all of them at my fingertips and I looked to them to make my life better. Needless to say, they didn't change my life completely, but I have picked up wisdom along the way that I find useful.

Lamb-Shapiro takes on America's "pull yourself up by your bootstrap" culture by exploring some of the most popular books and seminars out there. Having grown up with a child psychologist father meant that she was already well-versed on the subject, but she wanted to go deeper and see what people are spending so much money on and why. Do these books, retreats, and seminars make us happier, improve our relationships, and increase our (self) worth? What comes to light as she makes this journey is that while her father has made a career of helping people discuss their feelings and trauma, the two of them have never broached the subject of her mother's death when Lamb-Shapiro was a toddler.

I really enjoyed her foray into the world of self-help, especially The Rules seminar (which was hilarious), and I also liked being a voyeur into the healing of the author's own experience.
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Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture
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