“Nobody’s too smart for the right self-help book,” Mr. Boyd said. “The urban creative population scoffs at it, but we all have our weak spots, and there is a serious, sincere, maybe even relatively simple cut-to-the-chase kind of straightforward book that can actually speak to us and do us a great service in our moment of need.”
Daniel Menaker—who worked at The New Yorker for 26 years before becoming a book editor in 1995—evidently agrees: His forthcoming book, tentatively titled A Good Talk and slated for release in 2009, will offer readers practical advice on how they can improve their conversational skills.
Mr. Menaker describes A Good Talk as a narrative how-to guide in the model of The Elements of Style and Lynne Truss’s best-selling grammar primer Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Its target audience? Anyone who gets nervous when they’re talking to someone they don’t know intimately, whether it’s over lunch or at a cocktail party at the offices of The Paris Review.
The advice Mr. Menaker will offer will be based largely on his own “years of trembling,” he said, but the kids today, with their e-mail and their texting, are having difficulties he never had to face. And conversation, he said—that is, really, really good conversation—is consequently “in retreat.”
“I’m a Yeatsian, or a sort of neo-Hegelian. I think things go in cycles,” Mr. Menaker said. “I think right now, sitting down with people and talking to them about one thing or another is in a kind of abeyance, largely because of the Internet and also because there is an overriding ethos in our culture for action and productivity.”
Mr. Menaker’s book could, theoretically, prove just as useful to a young investment banker as it could to an editorial assistant. And yet, who stands to respond to it more urgently than those bookish, sensitive people Ms. Hustad interviewed for her book, the ones whose self-esteem lives and dies on their ability to engage others with their words?
The same can be said of Mr. Bayard’s How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read, which implores people to stop feeling ashamed about all the books they’re not familiar with, and learn instead to play along during the “awkward literary confrontations” that take place when they come up.
TO BE SURE, creativity-themed how-to guides have always existed: There are countless books on the market about how to draw better, how to write more believable characters, how to edit, how to free your imagination, etc. But this current crop is not offering readers tips on how to be better at their craft, but teaching them, more broadly, how to be people.
Which is to say, despite the fact that these books deal with how to act and how to carry oneself in public, the anxieties they’re responding to are rather deeply existential. Yes, Mr. Bayard’s book seems like an instruction manual for faking erudition, but the reason people crave such a manual is that they genuinely feel like failures and are scared of being in the world.
According to Marco Roth, one of the founders of n+1, there are more college graduates than ever wandering around New York feeling undereducated and under-read.
“You can’t learn everything in four years,” Mr. Roth, who participated in a panel discussion about college and reading that was included in n+1’s recent pamphlet, said in an interview. “And what’s happened in the history of thought in the 20th century is, the number of fields has multiplied and the amount of specialized knowledge has grown exponentially. The old systematic education model couldn’t work anymore.”
What We Should Have Known, he said, was supposed to be an antidote to the mania for self-improvement: an attempt to comfort people who are overwhelmed and crippled by their literary regrets—to say, essentially, “it’s okay.”
Can Mr. Roth, Ms. Hustad, Mr. Menaker and the rest of them really make us all feel “okay”? Hopefully! Therapy is awfully expensive.