Sunday August 26

The Anti-Self-Help Book of Advice: Augusten Burroughs' This Is How

Since 2002, we've gotten to know Augusten Burroughs. We've laughed at his expense, cried at his struggles, marveled at his mistakes. Burroughs has become sort of a friend -- perhaps that "train wreck friend" we occasionally have lunch with, listen to his/her crazy life-update, and leave thinking, "Well, see, it could be worse." But with his new book, This Is How, Burroughs changes his friendship with us and offers a new, surprising dynamic: advice.

This Is How is an "anti-self-help book" self-help book. It dismisses typical therapies and platitudes -- forget positive statement recitation and "always follow your dream," forget deep-breath anger management and constantly revisiting past traumas -- in favor of simple, tough love. Nothing is soft or soothing. Rather Burroughs tells us that life is unfair, though not out to get us. So, we must endure; we must "be" rather than "try to be"; we must take responsibility for our lives; we must find the truth in everything; we must never ask, "Why me?" This advice is realistic. But such cold, hard realism isn't the only note struck. Burroughs also rises to inspire, assuring us that anything is possible with a clear mind and an understanding of any given situation.

Each chapter, which introduces a new situation, is an informal study on different experiences, different moments in our lives, and helps us to squeeze from them the truth. The chapters cover everything from love to obesity to self-pity; to fear, to death, to shame; from disease to competence, to success, to confidence, and to much, much more. As you'd expect from Burroughs, interspersed among these studies are personal anecdotes that not only add to his arguments and points, but also truly entertain.

Burroughs is no psychologist or therapist; he's no "-ist" of any kind. And nor does he sound like one. In fact, his voice is refreshingly unprofessional; it's full of humor and energy and impartial concern. Such genuineness, perhaps replicated only in the voice of family and friends, harbors the book's greatest strength -- his honesty. With honesty, Burroughs is able to break through our mannered reactions and thoughts to life's gravest situations. He is able to introduce new viewpoints, new ideas, which -- even if we don't accept them -- open up the mind and allow us to find our own truths.

Augusten Burroughs is the author of the novel Sellevision, but is primarily known for his personal memoirs about childhood and alcoholism. Such memoirs include Dry, A Wolf at the Table, and Running with Scissors.

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