The ’70s manuals about how to have more sexually thrilling marriages were burnt years ago as fireplace kindling. The ’80s manuals about how to become ninja business warriors are yellowing on the shelf. You’re feeling bruised and compassless in the ’90s, and you’re looking for self-help advice that will fit into your leather backpack.
You and everyone else. Best-seller lists are plump with inspirational titles about how to be better human beings — not richer, not more alluring, just better. And the great genius of the genre is that you can read one, underline passages you’re sure will change your life, write ”How true!” in the margins, put the thing down (nearly finished) on the stack where you keep your Cosmo’s Bedside Astrologer, and promptly forget everything you’ve just taken to heart.
Fattest of these babies is The Book of Virtues, which is subtitled ”A Treasury of Great Moral Stories,” and which was compiled, with commentary, by William J. Bennett, Secretary of Education under Ronald Reagan. The book is organized by desirable character traits — responsibility, loyalty, perseverance, and so on — and within each category are assembled historic and traditional poems and short stories, fables and speeches, letters and doggerel. But what’s more striking than Virtues’ significance as a textbook of Trad Value Lit is its pursed and hectoring subtext, particularly in Bennett’s schoolmarmish little introductions: ”To feel another’s anguish — this is the essence of compassion,” he lectures before Hans Christian Andersen’s ”The Little Match Girl.” Or, ”Of all the vices, lust is the one many people seem to find the most difficult to control,” he reports before a retelling of the biblical story of David and Bathsheba. ”Hey, Bennett, what about the deadly sins of pride and vanity!” I find myself writing in the margins. ”Can’t you leave me in peace to learn for myself?”
I go on about this sobersided publication because it is representative of a current strain of humorless conservatism in inspirational teaching. For relief, I turn to Soul Mates and Care of the Soul, two forays by Thomas Moore into the spiritual side of human relations — an equally contemporary phenomenon that has nothing to do with mastering new sexual positions. Moore counsels as a therapist, although his training is in theology. And by thinking of the soul as an entity as familiar to a reader as the concept of codependency, his advice is as soft and Clintonesque as Bennett’s is hard and Reaganite. ”Friendship doesn’t ask for a great deal of activity, but it does require loyalty and presence. After all, what the soul wants is attachment,” he writes soothingly, like a politician feeling our pain.
The Road Less Traveled has been on charts for years now — it was first published in 1978, when readers were still trying to be their Own Best Friends. But because psychiatrist M. Scott Peck’s writing is so clear, and because he was ahead of his time in his integration of the spiritual self with the psychiatric self, his words are comforting without sounding dated or stale. Read it with Bernie S. Siegel’s Love, Medicine & Miracles, a surgeon’s take (first published in 1986) on the importance of love in the ”miraculous” healing of sick patients; the two promise to take care of body and soul.
Add to this list the handful of new books by folks filling the shelves with reports on their near-death experiences, and you may find yourself writing, ”How miraculous! Why doesn’t this stuff happen to me!” in the margins. After which you may find yourself dozing-and awakening to forget everything you’ve read, except, perhaps, that Cosmo says Virgos are in for some turbulent times in July. Book of Virtues: C-