by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

If you wanted help with your love life, would you ask an ex-homeless person who had once been a drug user and, in between, spent time in transcendental meditation, celibacy, and a marriage that collapsed after two years?

Of course you would. At least, many of us are. Check out the book sales for
“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus.” People are gobbling it up in a frenzied rush, hoping to solve their relationship woes.

This, by the way, is a very American thing to do. When in doubt, buy a book.

What is less trendy, it seems, is caring about where the author of that book got his or her credentials. And what gives that writer the privilege to dispense advice.

Consider the Mars/Venus author, John Gray, who is currently touring the country making big money doing seminars and lectures — in between his frequent talk show appearances — on the problems of male-female relationships.

Did Gray study human relationships in medical school, or teach for years at a top-flight university? Did he conduct any scientific research, or, for that matter, read any?

According to his profile, Gray didn’t do a whole lot of anything before writing his book. He was an admitted drug user in high school, wandered around Europe, got into transcendental meditation, and was celibate for a while before going full-bore into sex. To be honest, I have friends who have done all of these things. I wouldn’t recommend going to them for advice. Or, for that matter, a loan.

Gray, however, got lucky. He became a homeless person in California, then married a woman named Barbara De Angelis, a best-selling author herself. Barbara’s book is called “Secrets About Men Every Woman Should Know.”

I guess one of those secrets is which beach to check for a future husband. First, he called home

Although their marriage lasted only two years, Gray took a few things out of it. One, apparently, was this: You can make a ton of money in the self-help business.

And pretty soon, we had the Mars/Venus book. Not that Gray has been to either one. His concept of separate planets for the sexes came, he admits, from watching the movie “ET.”

Freud started this way, didn’t he?

Gray also admits that his highly publicized doctorate actually comes from a correspondence course with, uh, Columbia Pacific University in San Rafael, Calif.

This school is not accredited.

But that doesn’t seem to matter to readers. They grab Gray’s book and coo at his lectures, because, as smart as we are in this country, we haven’t gotten past the naive notion of “if it’s printed, it must be true.”

The book sells for $23.

Lot of money for common sense.

Which, in the end, is pretty much what Mars/Venus is all about. I read the book. Gray says: 1) Men and women are different. 2) They solve their problems differently. 3) It’s OK to be different.

Never mind that my grandmother once said the first two things, and Kermit the Frog said the third.

A best-seller is a best-seller. It gets worse

Such is the nature of the self-help business. I am not picking solely on Gray’s book. It is no worse — and actually better written — than many of the countless titles you find in the bookstore.

One of the hottest right now is “The Celestine Prophecy,” an amateurishly written “adventure” story about a man searching for a lost Peruvian manuscript that contains (gasp) the secret of life. People are buying this book as if the pages themselves came from Mt. Zion.

But if you look in the back, you see the author is not God, nor Freud, nor even Dr. Spock. He’s a fellow named James Redfield, who, near as I can tell, is most accomplished for thinking up ideas and “living in the rural South.”

In the end, this is all very silly, and sad. There are many ways to judge a society. One is where its people go for help. Americans seem to like the idea that a book can fix everything. And we are so replete with problems — and so desperate for solutions — that we’ll believe almost anything provided 1) It has a catchy title. 2) It gets on the Oprah Winfrey Show.

Sorry, folks. But this is not the barometer of wisdom. Yes, many practical lessons are available in print. But the truth is, much of the self-help movement is people raking in dough by lecturing, hawking tapes, holding seminars and creating best- sellers.

So next time you hear about a book that will change your life, you might want to check out the writer, and see how it changed his.

Besides getting him off the beach.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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