New book explores ‘America’s Self-Help Culture’

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro. Photo by Jason Frank Rothenberg

As Jessica Lamb-Shapiro points out in this powerful blend of memoir and reportage, everyone is affected by self-help, an industry that generates a billion dollars a year by trading in the many aphorisms that we encounter every day in the media, on coffee mugs and t-shirts, and in conversation with family and friends. Raised by a child psychologist who is the author of numerous self-help books, Lamb-Shapiro found herself at once repelled and fascinated by the industry to which her father had contributed so much. Did all of these books, tapes, and weekend seminars really help anyone? Why do some people swear by the power of positive thinking while others dismiss it as hokum?

A funny, poignant, and intelligent history of a uniquely American industry, “PROMISE LAND: My Journey Through America’s Self-Help Culture” (Simon & Schuster Hardcover, on sale 1/7/14) also reveals itself to be an intensely personal account of one woman’s reckoning with the great tragedy of her life—her mother’s early death and the years of complicit silence on which she and her father subsequently built their lives.

Lamb-Shapiro will appear in Brooklyn for a book launch party on Tuesday, Jan. 7 at BookCourt in Cobble Hill. 

In the name of research, Lamb-Shapiro took a class on how to find a husband, walked on hot coals, ate breakfast with over a hundred grieving children, attempted to cure herself of a debilitating fear of flying, helped a friend make a vision board and attended a conference how to write a best-selling self-help book. But the more she delved into the history and practice of self-help, the harder it became to convince herself that her work was purely academic. As she writes, “Of all those things, talking to my father about my mother was by far the hardest.”

Image courtesy of Simon & Schuster

At the end of her journey, forced to confront her grief, Lamb-Shapiro shows that sometimes we convince ourselves we know everything about a subject—only to hide the fact that we know nothing at all.  For anyone who has turned to the self-help section with hope, dismay, or even indifference, “Promise Land” will give a new perspective on why those books, and their messages, remain.

The Jan. 7 event will begin at 7 p.m. BookCourt is located at 163 Court St. in Cobble Hill.

Jessica Lamb-Shapiro has published fiction and nonfiction in The Believer, McSweeney’s, Open City, and Index magazine, among others. She has been a fellow at the MacDowell Colony and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and is a graduate of Brown (BA) and Columbia (MFA). She lives in New York City and Columbia County, New York. Promise Land is her first book. Learn more at

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