Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Self-Improvement Series, for the Rest of Us

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

A Self-Improvement Series, for the Rest of Us

Article excerpt

Alain de Botton, the philosophy-minded Swiss writer who has long resided in England, has begun issuing a new series of books, written by himself and others, titled The School of Life.

How to Think More About Sex. By Alain de Botton. Illustrated. 185 pages. Picador, $16; Pounds 10.

How to Stay Sane. By Philippa Perry. Illustrated. 171 pages. Picador, $16; Pounds 7.99.

One of the drawbacks of working in a bookstore, something I did for many years, is that it can be like working in a small-town pharmacy: You learn things about people you might rather not know. What sort of face do you put on when your new girlfriend's mother comes to the counter with a Newt Gingrich novel, a scented candle and a copy of "The Herpes Survival Guide"?

Self-help books are fraught with peril. There is the peril of being caught with one or having a guest find it in your bathroom, tucked behind back issues of The Economist. There is the peril of taking crackpot advice. There is finally the peril, given the subprimate level of intelligence and wit in most self-help books, of leading millions of your innocent brain cells into the killing fields.

Alain de Botton, the philosophy-minded Swiss writer ("How Proust Can Change Your Life," "The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work") who has long resided in England, has begun issuing a new series of books, written by himself and others, titled The School of Life. A better and more aspirational name for this series might be Self-Help Books for the Rest of Us.

These books are small, well under 200 pages. Their publicity material warmly extols their "French flaps," "deckle edge" and "handy, giftable trim size." They're damnably cute. To carry one is to announce, "If I am toting a book this foxy and literate-seeming, how bad can my troubles really be?"

The first two books in the series to be released in the United States have somewhat contradictory titles: "How to Think More About Sex," by Mr. de Botton, and "How to Stay Sane," by a British psychotherapist and writer named Philippa Perry. Cogitating on sex rarely, in my experience, leads to the sheltered private island of sanity and well-being. Thinking too much about sex tends to get you kicked off that island.

Mr. de Botton's book is by far the better one: It's funnier and rangier, more lucid and more provocative. It's nerdy-dirty, a kind of nonfiction analog to Nicholson Baker's 1992 phone-sex novel, "Vox." Summing up the bummers inherent in sex in a long-term relationship, for example, he declares: "We may in fact find it easier to put on a rubber mask or pretend to be a predatory, incestuous relative with someone we're not also going to have to eat breakfast with for the next three decades." "So true," you pencil in the margins.

It's difficult to synthesize the ground Mr. de Botton covers in "How to Think More About Sex," but at base it's a meditation on how comprehensively disruptive our urges can be. "Sex will never be simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be," he observes. …

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