As a teen who was prone to whiling away hours in bookstores, I’d often wander through the self-help section. I couldn’t tell you why I — a relatively well adjusted Black teen — felt drawn to a genre that I associated with recently divorced white women. I don’t have any memories of actually reading the books, just running my hand along the spines, taking comfort in the idea that someone had answers.
Now, older (yes) and wiser (sure), I don’t think any one person has all the answers, but I do believe we can find helpful takeaways from various perspectives on self-help topics. That is why I immediately said yes when the Globe’s Love Letters’ columnist Meredith Goldstein asked if I’d be interested in taking on this new monthly column devoted to self-help books with her. Part of me is still drawn to the idea that the solution to all my problems lives inside a book I just need the courage to open. Another part of me suspects that I, a Black queer woman, am not the target audience for these books—but still, the curiosity remains.
Because it’s February and a certain holiday is lingering on the horizon, I figured there was no better way to start than with two books published this month on the subject of — say it with me — terminal singledom.
“Single and Forced to Mingle,” by Melissa Croce, Atria Books, $16.99
Ostensibly a guide to making your way through social situations as a single person — weddings, parties and the like — “Single and Forced to Mingle” was born of a viral tweet by Croce, who works in children’s publishing. Its style is akin to the chatty girl at your office who’s had a few glasses of wine at the holiday party and has been talking to you for a half hour, showing no signs of exhaustion. Croce clearly wants to make the case that it’s fine to be single, and I wholeheartedly agree, but that message gets a little lost in endless jokes and quizzes. If you’re a person who is truly wondering “What Kind of Chain Restaurant You Should Eat Your Feelings At?” depending on how your last relationship ended, this book is absolutely for you! I just kept looking for the actual guide part. It’s possible I’ve been single for long enough that I no longer feel awkward about mingling, but I think it’s more likely that societal expectations, like marriage and kids, forced on single, heterosexual women are not as present (yet!) for queer women.
It’s a fun, breezy read, and Croce is an entertaining writer, as long as you aren’t bothered by wink wink references to a certain subset of millennial culture — “rosé all day” and avocado toast come up very quickly. I did appreciate that she kept the references to former and potential partners gender neutral.
Who it’s for: People who like Buzzfeed quizzes; anyone who misses the Internet culture of 2015; anyone who has gone to more than three baby showers and/or engagement parties in a three month period.
“Single. On Purpose” by John Kim, HarperOne, $24
Kim’s book covers many things one would hope to find in a guide to getting from “alone and disconnected to alone and fulfilled”: how to make friends as an adult, the importance of having a healthy relationship with your body, learning how to be lonely. But it turns out it’s actually not that pleasant to read a book that encourages you to be vulnerable when it is coming from a man who is equal parts condescending and self deprecating. I suppose I could have expected to find the book’s tone off-putting, knowing that Kim goes by “The Angry Therapist,” and describes his approach to therapy as “self-help in a shot glass.” I had a hard time not tossing the book against a wall.
There are some interesting and helpful insights —like Kim’s insistence that long, lasting friendships are the kind of relationships we should focus on building. The problem is that all the good advice is lost in a sea of obnoxious language (“Like a stripper who uses the stage to get her power back.”) and derision for the women he dates (“yoga girl”) that gave me the impression Kim doesn’t particularly like or respect women, which made it rather challenging to take anything he said seriously.
Granted, the title of his previous book is “I Used to Be a Miserable [expletive],”and his self-deprecating schtick makes me think that when he writes about former relationships, he’s trying to point out he wasn’t giving his partners what they deserved, as a caution to readers not to repeat his mistakes. Unfortunately, the way Kim tells these stories is closer to “high school football player reliving his reckless youth” than “man who learned something about himself and how he treated women.” The book might be the most beneficial for anyone who identifies as a serial monogamist and is interested in trying to break that cycle. Or maybe you just have to be the kind of person who enjoys being lectured by a man in his forties.
Who it’s for: Anyone who liked “The Newsroom;” Cis straight men over 40; Troy from “Reality Bites.”
Christina Tucker lives in Philadelphia and writes for Autostraddle, Elle, Vogue, Teen Vogue and NBC’s Think.com. She podcasts as a fourth chair on NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour.”