The Read: Like all of Ehrenreich's work, this is, if I may allow myself to use the bland language of the positive, "a good read." The someone hyperbolic subtitle is about the only wrong note in the whole thing. From her experiences with being told to think of cancer as "a gift" to motivational corporate speakers who show up just before everyone's about to get axed, from the prosperity gospel to the "positive psychology"'s grab for academic respectability, she weaves together stories of a relentless insistence on positivity which is, naturally enough, most often directed to those with the least money and status. My personal un-favorite: a California home security system company whose 'motivational' tactics included breaking eggs on the heads of under-performing salespeople and making them wear diapers. (The punch line: it's not harassment because they did it to men and women!) My reaction to a lot of the book was like what Ann Patchett describes after seeing "Glengary Glenn Ross": it was like a horror movie of what your life would be like if the whole writing/teaching thing didn't work out. People work in offices like this! Every! Day! The last time I temped was over ten years ago and I still have those nightmares. (And I remember that last job too, at some fancy fashion place in the far West Village.) Someone in a class I'd just T.A.'ed for walked in and shot me a look I'll never forget. Actually, I'm sure she was perfectly lovely and I just remember it that way.
To me, though, the most interesting part of the book was her chapters on the origins of positive thinking, in the "New Thought" of the nineteenth century which arose as a response to Calvinism and its many ills. One of the most interesting figures in this story is Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. I remember reading her biography in a book of short bios of exceptional women when I was about nine and how she healed herself and how there was this slip of paper on her bed when she died that said "God is my life." It was a chilling but moving story, then as now: then as now, of course, positive thinking is a way for people to claim power when the world has given them little of it, and it was an attractive option for all those nineteenth century sufferers of mysterious ailments, which included, I learned from this book, not only middle class women but clergymen, who didn't yet have direct marketing empires to conquer. I guess it makes sense when you think about preachers in 19th century literature, like poor old Hooper behind his veil.
The temptation, of course, is react to the emptiness of things like the Secret and the prosperity gospel by seeing the old model of neverending sinfulness as attractive - or at least as admirably rigorous in light of what's replaced it. The book never does this, but it did leave me wondering at times - the mega-churches, for example - so they're light on theology and heavy on guitars and support groups - is this a problem? Of course the calculated optimism the guy who writes Dow 36,000 is dangerous, but what about the ordinary person? Enforce cheerfulness is terrible, sure, but the actual experience of people drawn to these things - it's easy and probably mostly correct to think of it as quiet desperation, but the whirlwind tour Ehrenreich gives us doesn't leave a lot of room for their voices.
Coming Up Next: Fiction. For Real this time, including perhaps, the notorious 20 under 40.