The Secret, Rhonda Byrne

The Secret, Rhonda Byrne

Atria, 2006, 198 pages, ISBN 978-1-58270-170-7

Yes, your honour, I am possibly the worst possible person in the world to review The Secret.

As I stand before you explaining what would motivate me to write about a book that I found obnoxious and exasperating, I confess that I am guilty of crass materialism in all facets of my personal philosophy.  I believe that hard work and self-confidence are the way to get what we deserve.  I don’t place any trust in purveyors of pseudoscientific woo-woo.  I am allergic to much of the self-help literature.  I don’t even watch Oprah.

I have read The Secret.  I found it at a used book-sale.  The type of book sale where they weigh your box, charge you by the pound and don’t ask to see what’s inside.  I can’t imagine that I paid more than a dollar for it.

Well, maybe a bit more, given how it’s printed on heavy paper.  Amazon tells me that it has less than 36,000 words, but they’re all set on glossy photo-paper, and every page has a faux-scroll background, with color icons to introduce every contributor and full-color pictures of them at the end.  This is a really well-designed product.  It’s not a book as much as it’s a slick piece of Da Vinci Code-inspired marketing designed to sell other derivatives of itself.  Most of those derivatives, I assume, must try to sell the book in return.

Oh, yes, your honour, I have understood The Secret.  The Law of Attraction is nothing more than wishing hard enough to make things come true.  Was that a spoiler?  Well, what can I say: You can probably read any page in the book and grasp as much, given how it just keeps repeating its basic points over and over, adding up potentially fraudulent, delusional or bias-confirmed anecdotes until they’re meant to look like data.  It’s all wrapped up in quantum pseudo-science spouted by professional cloud-peddlers –including my own favourite crackpot Fred Alan Wolf, who provides a telling link between The Secret and What the Bleep Do We Know?

You could describe my overall reaction to the book as a mixture of exasperation and cackling sarcasm.  It’s actually intriguing in how it sets up a delusion that makes The Secret seem so important and all-powerful: It’s linked with safely dead figures such as Einstein, Shakespeake and Mother Theresa, then puts up a baroque system of negative belief meant to immunize believers against skeptics: According to the book, harbouring any doubt at all about wishful thinking will make it fail.  It’s then your fault if it doesn’t work.  If that’s not a cult-like indoctrination device, I’m not sure what is.

In fact, I would propose that The Secret is a really handy pseudo-religious device to keep the proletariat down.  It’s a straight-up money transfer from the readers to TS Production LLC, and a way to keep the dissatisfied wishing for more.  If it doesn’t work, it’s not because the universe doesn’t work like that: It’s because their own faith in The Secret isn’t strong enough.  They can either reinforce it by buying another TS Production LLC product or blame mysterious elites for keeping The Secret a secret.

What annoys me the most about The Secret is that it actually trivializes a lot of useful behavioural techniques.  Self-confidence is always a performance-booster, positive thinking can help in identifying opportunities and moving expertise from the conscious to the subconscious is a mainline to mastery… there’s a lot of common-sense in here, but it’s wrapped in pseudo-conspiracy theories, slick marketing packaging and insidious memetic content.  The Secret is probably not dangerous in that it reaps its rewards from the same people periodically picked clean by other new-age money-grabs… but it’s always a disappointment to realize that despite the demonstrable rewards of hundreds of years of rational thought, there is still a substantial appetite for such nonsense.

Now, I understand that I’m about four years behind the times in blathering indignantly about The Secret.  People have moved on, much like copies of The Celestine Prophecy are gathering dust on so many bookshelves.  But, you know what?  When The Secret was hot, I wished for a way to read it without paying any money at all to the hucksters at TS Production LLC.  I could have borrowed it from the library, mooched it from a credulous friend or gone digging through recycling bins, but I just waited and the Universe sent a copy ripe for picking at my favourite book sale.  HOLY CRAP IT WORKS!

Never mind, your Honour, I rest my case.

What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)

What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)

(In theaters, January 2005) This is a very frustrating film, one that drove me from one extreme to another in mere seconds. On the surface, it tries to be an metaphysical exploration of the limits of contemporary science, wrapped in a fictional frame story that leads off to interviews with experts. Fine. And, indeed, in some respects the film does an amazing job at presenting aspects of quantum physics in ways to make any science geek cheer in recognition. Time and time again, the film has a line or two that made me want to squeal little satisfied glees of agreement. And as long as it keeps this “isn’t it neat?” attitude, as long as it keeps up the pretence that we’re just joshing around with stuff we’re beginning to understand, there’s nothing wrong here. But then there is the other stuff. The framing story (featuring a lovely Marlee Matlin) is hit-and-miss: The beginning is painful, as it laboriously sets up its own set of visual metaphors and emotional triggers. The mid-point wedding sequence is good fun, as all the set-up pays off, and the party really gets going once the accordion is unleashed. Unfortunately, it soon bogs down under the weight of its growing self-importance, a problem that is shared by the entire film as a whole. You see, What The Bleep Do We Know? soon leaves amused scientific speculation to turns into yet another new-age “what you wish for will become true” crapfest. The interviewee’s identity are kept hidden until the end for a good reason: At least one of them is a crackpot guru with no scientific credentials; many of the rest are also heavily into the woo-woo stuff. (Too bad: I liked Fred Alan Wolf’s kindly-mad-scientist shtick) And that, in turn, explains the various moments in the film where you go “What? That doesn’t make sense!” It gets progressively more painful as the film descends into hard-core “science says wishful thinking is real!” nonsense. I can deal with limited amounts of “what if?” thinking, but this soon turns into “as if!” stuff. Pure frustration, and you know what? Real honest scientific speculation, the kind that doesn’t require feel-good new-age nonsense, is even more wonderful that this stuff.

The Celestine Prophecy, James Redfield

Warner, 1993, 246 pages, C$21.95 hc, ISBN 0-446-51862-X

Most of my reviews focus on science-fiction, thrillers and truly odd non-fiction. Henceforth, it’s a rarity (outside science-fiction conventions, of course) when I can actually discuss books with other live people. Not so with James Redfield’s The Celestine Prophecy, which has spent some unbelievable time on bestseller lists and seems to have been read by a similarly unbelievable number of people. At the office, about a third of my colleagues seemed to have read the book; a higher proportion still knew enough about it to snicker scornfully.

I’ll be honest enough to admit that I’m often deeply suspicious of anything that becomes too popular. Yes, I’m an elitist. But an elitist who goes to enough used book sales to be willing to give a chance to anything cheap enough. And so that’s how I ended up with a nice hardcover copy of The Celestine Prophecy (thirty-third printing!) in my to-read stack.

From the dust jacket, it’s easy to see why the book would inspire both such sales and such scorn. Some mumbo-jumbo about ancient insights, a spiritual culture, universal truths wrapped in contemporary pseudo-scientific vocabulary and the promise of life-shattering revelations. “A book that comes along once in a lifetime to change lives forever” soberly writes the Warner Books copywriter. Whew!

No being a big fan of new-age yadda-yadda, I was prepared for the worst. What I ended up reading in an hour or so wasn’t all that bad.

First, let’s state the evidence: Yes, this is feel-good new-age “personal enlightement” literature. It may be masquerading as a (poor) thriller, but the nature of the “insights”, the progression of the litany and the promises of a richer, more fulfilling life are familiar enough.

But new-age literature is actually more complicated to write than its detractors will allow, given how it has to blend pop-psychology, motivational training and a fair bit of self-hypnosis. Redfield’s stoke of genius was to transpose his dry list of nine insights in a first-person thriller framework. Besides deliberately blurring the lines between reality and fiction, The Celestine Prophecy is kind enough to allow even sceptical readers like me to be swept along (somewhat) by the narrative flow of a story with just enough guns, sex and explosions to make it interesting.

Now, let’s be truthful and admit that as thriller fiction, The Celestine Prophecy is trash. That’s obvious from the very first few pages, as the author gives himself a “get out of jail free” card in the form of a “nothing happens by accident” First Insight. Whee! Free opportunities to use convenient coincidences over and over and over and over again! The hand of the author in manipulating his characters is obvious though the novel, as the narrator meets one useful character after another and is thrown in a series of suspiciously convenient adventures. Hilarious logical howlers abound, from stupid character names (with no regard to ethnicity) to smack-obvious foreshadowing that allow any alert reader to predict the next chapter’s big insight. The fantasy elements are poorly integrated (Woo! Love-driven auras!), but I’m not about to review The Celestine Prophecy as fantasy, because otherwise we’ll be here until morning without much to account for.

But you know what? It’s hard for me to be too harsh at a book that cost next to nothing to buy and took barely an hour to read. Fantasy auras aside, the “insights” of the book at the type of harmless things sold far more seriously by Psychology PhDs elsewhere in the self-help section. Heck, it wouldn’t take much to link The Celestine Prophecy to the trans-humanist movement, complete with the final rapture/singularity. And that, for some reason, just warms up my geek heart. Good, bad, just throw The Celestine Prophecy in the “interesting; won’t take too much of your time; fun to argue about” pile. At least it’ll give you something to talk about at the next science-fiction convention… or even at the office.

Dianetics, L.Ron Hubbard

Bridge, 1950 (1987 revision), 628 pages, C$6.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-88404-279-0

This is how Dianetics begins:

Important Note: In reading this book, be very certain you never go past a word you do not understand. The only reason a person gives up a study or becomes confused or unable to learn is because he or she has gone past a word that was not understood. [P.viii, bold in text]

Okay, so how about the following reasons: A person may give up because the writing style is so redundant that even clear language wouldn’t help. A person might give up because the author himself doesn’t have a clue what he’s writing about. A person might give up because the writing style is juvenile despite (or even because) a pretentious vocabulary. A person might give up because they realize that what they’re reading is total garbage.

I haven’t been shy, elsewhere, in dismissing Scientology as a sham and a cult based on nonsense. The information is available elsewhere for your own edification. But even then, I wanted to give a chance to “The Book” that started it all, Dianetics, in the hope that I may be wrong.

Turns out I didn’t have the slightest clue how much crap is at the foundation of Scientology.

Readers with the internal fortitude to read the entirety of Dianetics will go through three stages. The first is bewilderment, as they’ll try to wrestle with L. Ron Hubbard’s embarrassing writing style. The opening “Important Note” is only a mere warning against the awful prose in which this piece of trash is written. Seemingly written for none-too-bright teenagers, Dianetics is nevertheless sprinkled with pretentious vocabulary that’s as ridiculous as it’s unnecessary. The book contains hundreds of footnotes referring to definitions, but when you see footnotes like “11. craven: cowardly.” [P.205] or “21. harlot: a prostitute” [P.323], it’s obvious that Elron’s just playing at sounding smart. The writing style is even worse; nonsensical phrases are written as if they meant something and then immediately followed by patronizing passages that assume that the audience is a bunch of morons.

Bafflement leaves place to amusement, and it’s not uncommon to encounter passages so insane that they can only elicit laughter. (Merely take the straight-faced citation of Shakespeare as a scientist [P.173] as a particularly incongruous passage) It turns out that according to Dianetics, all can be explained by trauma-induced “engrams”, harmful mental patterns that can be formed even inside the womb. (Allow me to cite once more: “The engram is not a memory; it is a cellular trace of recording impinged deeply into the very structure of the body itself” [P.140, italics in text]) The mind is a computer, and knowing how to debug engrams can set you free. Sounds iffy? It’s even worse in the book: “An engram received from Father beating Mother which says “Take thay! Take it, I tell you. You’ve got to take it!” means that our patient has possibly had tendencies as a kleptomaniac.” [P.281] Hubbard’s tirades against psychologists, hypnotists and “Juniors” are especially amusing, especially when you realise that Dianetics is a brain-damaged take-off on Freudian psychiatry, and the so-called treatment nothing more than a form of ill-guided hypnosis.

But as you go along, amusement will eventually turn to fierce loathing. Hubbard’s view that homosexuality is an illness “extremely dangerous to society” [P.140] is disturbing, nearly as much as his warped vision of society. According to him, it seems that all husbands beat their wives regularly, adultery is widespread (especially for pregnant women), “attempted abortion is very common” [P.211] and women generally do their best to screw up their own children.

Would you trust this man? The real shock of the book comes as you realize that, yes; people actually fall for that stuff. Even without knowing about the ludicrous “Operating Thetan” garbage of higher-level Scientology, people fell for Dianetics, maybe taken by the false impression that Elron was discussing “touchy matters” in a repressive age.

In some ways, Dianetics reminded me a little of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, by the way a thick book can convince a lot of people. Where the comparison fails for me is that it insults Rand’s followers: While Objectivists might be selfish and rude, Scientologists are just plain nuts. There’s no real contest which group I’d rather hang with, given the unpleasant choice.

I may be restating the obvious, but Dianetics is one of the most odious books I have had the misfortune to read. Horribly written, devoid of any basis in reality as we know it and an affront to both intelligence and good taste, Dianetics is a masterpiece of crackpot literature. Stay far, far away from this book. Unless you want to double-check what I’m writing, in which case you will quickly realize that the above review barely understates the true insanity of Dianetics. Have fun…