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“Promise Land”: A skeptic among the gurus

From the days of Ben Franklin and his chart-obsessed "Autobiography," the American self has been a perpetual work in progress. (Franklin recommended keeping careful records of one's observance of such virtues as industry, temperance and cleanliness.) For the bemused, anxious and thoughtful writer Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, however, this mania has been especially pervasive. Her father, a child psychologist, has been writing self-help books for parents and children since before she was born, and even started a mail-order catalog of therapeutic toys and games, most of which he tested on her. Here's Lamb-Shapiro's recollection of the first time he coaxed his little daughter into playing a "cooperative game":

Dad: Everyone has to finish the game, or no one wins.
Me: What?
Dad: No one wins unless everyone wins.
Me: So no one wins.
Dad: No, everyone wins.

That conversation perfectly captures the spirit of "Promise Land: My Journey through America's Self-Help Culture," Lamb-Shapiro's deadpan, eyebrow-arched effort to comprehend the glass-half-full point of view despite her own half-empty propensities. There's no shortage of books featuring "cultural history" and other quasi-sociological surveys of this terrain, but Lamb-Shapiro's take is different. Part experiential journalism, part memoir, "Promise Land" is both funnier and more searching than detached forms of social commentary could ever hope to be.

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