On Sneak-Reading: Dear Sugar

From time to time, I sneak-read self-help books. This genre is full of promises to transform us: prescriptions for success based on personality types, "scientifically substantiated" manifestos on what to eat, ten ways to unlock an intangible force within you. At heart, I share a fundamental belief with this multibillion dollar industry: books can change us. But the ones that claim explicitly to do so are often sanctimonious, formulaic, and questionable. If you, like me, feel like this about the genre of self-help, you might be familiar with sneak-reading, and probably its cousin snark-reading. 

This past week, I sneak-read (snuck-read?) Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of letters that Strayed wrote for her online advice column "Dear Sugar." It's the perfect book to fill brief gaps in a busy schedule - a letter here, a letter there, just one more before bedtime. The letters are from men and women, young and old, writing about deeply personal insecurities, uncertainties: loss and love in many permutations. Although an advice column is a form of self-help, the epistolary form guards against the sort of generalizations endemic to this genre. Strayed a.k.a Sugar gives anecdotal advice, tailored to a particular reader's problems and striking different chords in different people amongst her wider readership. The letters often deal with overcoming crisis, a subject that also motivates her acclaimed memoir Wild (currently in my to-read pile). Despite using terms of endearment like "darling" and "honey bun," Sugar sugarcoats sparingly, unreserved in pointing out our arrogance, flawed logic, or misguided priorities. Vulnerabilities are laid bare, and humility is one of the most powerful forces to emerge from them. In one of the early letters, Strayed quotes Flannery O'Connor's observation that "The first product of self-knowledge is humility." From her letters, it seems that the first product of humility is empathy. 

Sneak-reading is a product of pride. We don't want to be associated with self-help, a genre that so often peddles literary snake oil. We don't want to need "advice on love and life" because that makes us sound like we're broken and need fixing. But Strayed's goal isn't to fix anything: she comforts, confesses, reasons, accepts, and encourages us all to do the same. The letters to Sugar represent a breadth of hardships, most of which I have not experienced, but Strayed's responses often create a lump in my throat, that feeling of making someone else's emotions my own. 

About halfway through Tiny Beautiful Things, my sneak-reading gave way to rather public proclamations of love for this bookI plan to give it to friends with a big fat inscription inside that says "READ THIS please." I'd give one to all of you if I could.