Simula Life

My local bookstore is a pretty good one—as book stores go.  It regularly brings in authors (both renowned and good).  Its reader recommendations are generally excellent.  It purveys only a minimum of kitsch (greeting cards and such).  Its shelves are well stocked…  Well, yes.   And yet no: The bookstore has succumbed to the now well-entrenched Simula-life genre—by which I mean the kind of how-to books designed to aid the curious, the clueless, or the merely incomplete in how to achieve spiritual peace, emotional balance, world class business acumen, an amazing culinary sense… (One could go on.)

Now, in one sense, this is really great.  The books testify to a certain native curiousity and an admirable American drive at self-betterment.  At the same time, these how-to books seem like—this is going to sound really harsh here—instruction manuals for remedial living.  It’s as if—and sadly, maybe this is right—without these books about how to get to X or Y, our culture had failed to equip us for knowing how to live.  It’s like the travel guide approach to human life.  The Michelin guide to relationships.  The complete AAA Trip Tik (with points of interest) for young couples or for the borderline middle-aged.

I know, I know—this is awfully harsh on my part.  And I kind of know I’m wrong here.  I must be in a bad mood.  I don’t know why.  I just got back from Paris.  Maybe that’s it.  I went to lots of cafes (with my laptop to finish a talk I had to give).  The Parisians had no laptops in the cafes.  They were sipping those intensely strong little espressos, talking in twos and fours and fives.   At the outside tables (they braved the cold) they smoked their Gitanes and their Gauloises.  O.K.–I know, you shouldn’t romanticize an entire culture on the basis of cigarette brands and laptops absent from boulevard cafes.

Still, there’s my bookstore back home, with all these instruction manual books for healthy, happy, tranquil, rewarding, successful living.  It occurs to me that the healthy living books probably prescribe happiness….  The happiness books probably prescribe tranquility….  The tranquility books probably…  You get the idea.  Everything is a means to something else.  (The “how to use time wisely books” probably confirm the point.)

It occurs to me that instead of buying all these books, one could just hire a stunt person to live one’s life.  They could report back:  “Yep, you broke a six-minute mile this morning and yesterday you learned to make this amazing Thai appetizer!”  It also occurs to me, one could just buy an entire collection of these books, put them end to end in a big bookshelf.  Tell friends about it: “Yep, could have gone through a rough patch up there—yeah on the third shelf from the top on the right side.  Bought the book instead.”

Harsh, man.  Harsh.

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4 Responses to Simula Life

  1. Pingback: Waiting | brazenandtenured–law politics nature and culture

  2. I have also noted with mild chagrin the decline in what one might be tempted to call “sophisticated” literature. Before the Borders on the 29th St Mall closed, less than half of the inventory was even books–the rest being stationary, pretty things that young girls like, and cds/movies–and of course, most of the books were about some form of new-age spirituality, wicca, or of the how-to-be-a-better-whatever genre. I have always judged a bookstore by how many of Hemingways novels they keep in stock. When you’re down to The Sun Also Rises and the Norton anthology of his short stories, you know it has become dire straits.

    My personal qualms aside, I think that the rise in how-to or “travel guide to human life” as Professor Schlag calls them are an uncanny symptom of what Theodor Adorno called the Culture Industry, in which mass-produced pseudo-cultural items are substituted for the real thing because they are more easily mass-consumed. I have often thought that the for-dummies and idiots guide books were heralding a world of increased conformity and a lack of more serious ambitions. Who wants to learn how idiots program a computer?

    In closing, I would have to caution that I do own a fair amount of how-to books. Most of these are field guides of plants and animals. I also own a fair share of books on gardening, soil and water management, gun-smithing/reloading and the like, so you can take my comments with the grain of salt that they are due.

    • Pierre Schlag says:

      So yes. Everybody has the “travel guide to life books,” as you so aptly call them. (Cookbooks alone put us all on on one side of the line) And your expression reveals why one can only be so tough on the genre: As the culture becomes more and more intricate and variegated, negotiation requires resort to something like the travel guide to life books. What’s the alternative? Just say no to instrumentalism? And yet if we don’t learn somehow to say no, then instrumentalism will have nothing to feed on but itself. And what will we be at that point?

  3. Patrick de Freitas says:

    Wow. I’m impressed. You have apparently read every single book that’s on your shelves. There’s not one Good Intention sitting there, not one Impulsive Purchase that you’ll get to some day, not one book someone gave you that you’re too polite to chuck out. Nothing, in fact, that does not already grace your mind. You’re unusual. Off the bell curve unusual.

    All books are, to use your term, “a means to something else.” That’s what they’re for. Even the books you castigate, what booksellers call “bumper sticker books.” In that case, it’s the purchase of the book that validates the person. That’s no less of an honorable reason than yours.

    I commend to your attention the first few pages of Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler.” You can probably find it at the bookstore you’re so enthusiastic about.

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