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You: Fooled Again!

Part I: Anatomy of a (Hardcover Advice) Best Seller

by The Shadow

#88, 12 February 2007

Every now and again, with a mind toward keeping abreast of current trends in book publishing, I buy a best seller that I would otherwise not pass within two or three aisles of at a bookstore. Sometimes I end up being pleasantly surprised; sometimes not.

This is one of the "not" stories. Four "nots" will follow in this series.

The bestseller in question today - YOU: On a Diet: The Owner's Manual for Waist Management [ISBN-10: 0743292545, ISBN-13: 978-0743292542] - has been perched atop The New York Times "Hardcover Advice" bestseller list for some weeks (though I think it's dropped down a peg since).

I chose this book partly because two "YOU" books had preceded it, both of which have been colossal bestsellers - YOU: The Owner's Manual: An Insider's Guide to the Body that Will Make You Healthier and Younger and YOU: The Smart Patient: An Insider's Handbook for Getting the Best Treatment. [EDITOR'S NOTE: We are now threatened with a 4th title - YOU: On a Walk.]

I also chose this book because I received my Winter 2007 Easton Press catalog last week and - boy, was this a jaw-dropping experience - one of the new offerings was none other than YOU: The Owner's Manual, "... bound in genuine leather. Accented on the spine with 22-karat gold. Printed on acid-neutral pages that are thread-sewn, not merely glued." Most of us, I think, have long nurtured assumptions that Easton Press was and remains in the biz of reprinting classics, books that have stood the test of time and come out on top of the literary heap. To me, publishing YOU: The Owner's Manual in full leather with not-merely-glued pages seems tantamount to inducting a rookie of the year into the hall of fame, only this rookie should've been sent back to the bush leagues before the end of spring training. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. And this isn't the only rookie. If you haven't glanced at an Easton catalog recently, there are several dozen of them in the lineup now. Easton is preserving for posterity the likes of Princess Di, Charlie Brown and Spider-Man. When I close my eyes, I can see, among others, Albert Boni, George Macy and Joseph Malaby Dent doing things that dead men really shouldn't do in their graves - move. And, if you think there are only books in Easton catalogs, hah. Anybody need a Grundig G5W shortwave radio?

Sorry, I'm getting off message.

Let's start this review with an excerpt from the YOU: On a Diet dust jacket blurb:

"For the first time in our history, scientists are uncovering astounding medical evidence about dieting - why so many of us struggle with our weight and the size of our waists. Now researchers are unraveling biological secrets about such things as why you crave chocolate or gorge at buffets or store so much fat.

"Michael Roizen and Mehmet Oz, America's most trusted doctor team and authors of the bestselling YOU series, are now translating this cutting edge information to help you shave inches off your waist. They're going to do it by giving you the best weapon against fat: knowledge. By understanding how your body's fat-storing and fat-burning systems work, you're going to learn how to crack the code on true and lifelong waist management."

I'd like you to ponder the word "knowledge" for a moment, trotted out here as the "best weapon against fat." More traditional weapons against fat - deprivation, exercise, willpower, etc. - are the sorts of things that most of us don't want to take in hand yet again because they can be difficult to wield, sometimes painful if not impossible to sustain for any length of time, and ultimately ineffectual. Not so knowledge. Knowledge is easy. You can sit down in a comfortable chair and read a book - and gain knowledge.

And guess what. Now you can beat fat with the power of knowledge! Apparently we just didn't have the right kind of knowledge before all of these astounding scientific breakthroughs occurred. The truth is that most blurbs are carefully crafted to trick you into buying a book. The suggestion in this blurb is that losing weight will now be as easy as reading a book. Kind of makes you want to buy it, doesn't it?

Trouble is there's lots more to the YOU: On a Diet program than knowledge. Oh, there's knowledge in it alright, but it seems almost beside the point and never the sort I'd attach the adjective "astounding" to. Interestingly enough, EVERYTHING YOU'VE ALWAYS HATED ABOUT DIETING IS PART OF THIS PROGRAM TOO!

Permit me to hit some high spots.

  1. DEPRIVATION. Guess what you don't get to eat on the YOU: On a Diet program? Just about everything that tastes good. Guess what you do get to eat? Oh, ah, raw walnuts, apples, boneless/skinless chicken seared on thin, aerosol sprayed films of olive oil, low-fat cottage cheese - and don't forget tofu! Sound familiar?

  2. EXERCISE. Damn right you'll have to exercise, buddy - in fact, you'll have to walk 30 minutes every single day for the rest of your life. And stretch too! Worse, three times a week you'll be romping around on your carpet doing something called the YOU workout. This includes a near endless series of ridiculous exercises with names like "The Clapper," "The Hippie," "Steady on the Plank," "Up, Dog, Up" and "The Seated Pretzel." Anxious to get started?

  3. WILLPOWER. Hey, wait a minute! Wasn't knowledge supposed to trump willpower? Oh, yeah, that's right, exactly this kind of knowledge: "We want your body to guide you to the right choices - without thinking about them - so that they'll lead to the results you want. It will take some effort at the start to retrain your habits, palate, and muscles ..." And I thought effort had something to do with willpower. Oh - and you'll need support too for whatever willpower you can't muster yourself: "Sure, you need to be the quarterback of your waist control team, but you won't achieve success without a team that can block for you, high-five you when you're doing well, and give you an encouraging smack on the butt when you're not. Your starting lineup should include your doctor, maybe a nutritionist, maybe a personal trainer, and certainly scads and scads of fans like your family and friends (online or in person) who can push you, support you, and yank the bowl of candy away from you."


I guess I could forgive this trickery if this wasn't such a bad, stupid, manipulative book in almost every other sense I can think of. Here are a few conspicuous elements that stirred me deeply:


    Some of the worst I've ever seen. Take a look at this masterpiece:

    You know, I don't mind one bit if illustrative content looks like something that was yanked from a comic book or a mid-century Mad Magazine as long as it clearly and near instantly communicates something, but what's the point of this? I challenge you to glance at it, close your eyes, and utter one intelligible statement about what you saw. Nothing more than a mass of piggly wiggly lines, in my opinion. A simple chart executed with straight lines and legible fonts would've been far superior.

    If you think that one was bad, check this zinger out:

    I have to assume that the intention here is to keep things breezy and humorous, but give me a freaking break.


    Every page or so you'll bang into one of these guys in the margin:

    This is none other than the YOU-reka imp, an annoying little bastard that finger-snaps the arrival of - well, I'll let the authors explain it: "Like Einstein suddenly realizing that E=mc2 you'll develop deep insights that challenge your preconceptions about diet, about fat, and about your body. In the margin you'll see our YOU-reka imp - the signal that we're about to come upon a moment of enlightenment by busting a myth or explaining something to you about diets that may seem 180 degrees from what you believe is true."

    Isn't this a feat. The authors announcing the arrival of insights! And here I've been laboring under the delusion all these years that insights were something that were borne within me, fueled by an inner light or something, not things that were tossed at me from left field. I'm sure you'll want an example: "Add just a little more muscle, and you'll use more energy and store less fat. And that makes it [strength training] an even more efficient exercise for burning fat than cardiovascular training." This must be one of those "recent" medical breakthroughs they were alluding to, though I wouldn't be surprised if Hippocrates himself was the doc on call who actually broke this news to the unwashed.

  3. WIT.

    I've saved my favorite part until last. We're repeatedly warned in publisher's reviews, etc., that this book, like those that preceded it, is, if nothing else, a tour de force of wit. Apart from illustrative wit, which I believe I've illustrated in spades above, there's so much verbal wit peppered throughout that I don't know where to start, though maybe something from Strunk & White would make a good lead-in to what I'm about to lay on you. In the seminal writing how-to, Elements of Style, Professor Strunk (abetted by Mr. White) gives us the skinny on figures of speech:

    "18. Use figures of speech sparingly.

    "The simile is a common device and a useful one, but similes coming in rapid fire, one right on top of another, are more distracting than illuminating. The reader needs time to catch his breath; he can't be expected to compare everything with something else, and no relief in sight.

    "When you use metaphor, do not mix it up. That is, don't start by calling something a swordfish and end by calling it an hourglass."

    Ok, brace yourselves. I found these examples via speed reading the first dozen or so pages alone!

    "Sweat like a sauna-dwelling sumo wrestler, and you'll wind up skinner than a sheet of paper. But if it really worked that way, our bodies wouldn't be large enough to be spotted by Google Earth."

    "Many of the rules, ideas, and principles you may believe about dieting - that you assume work when dieting - simply aren't true and can very well contribute to weight issues because they keep the vicious cycle of fat loss and fat gain revolving faster than Lance Armstrong's front wheel."

    "Some people haven't stepped on a scale since Laverne & Shirley played prime time."

    "... and there are CD-thin people whose risk of dying prematurely is more than a chuteless skydiver's."

    "But try to stay on a diet where you feel more isolated than a Yankees fan at Fenway Park ..."

    "What we should acknowledge is that we live in a world of free will, with temptations, and with more eating options than the Mall of America."

    "... powered by such physiological cues as sight, smell, and the fact that you've been drooling like an overheated St. Bernard at the thought of a fried-cheese appetizer special."

    "When your blood sugar is low, that's what stimulates hunger and causes you to feed like a rat in the Kraft aisle."

    "If you add it all at once, you'll produce more gas than a Saudi oil field."

    "The result: lots of intestinal dilation and more gas than a Hummer fuel tank."

    "But as we gain weight, some of our bellies are housing four stories of Winnebago-worthy fat."

    "Anatomically, your intestinal wall is Clint Eastwood tough."

    "Certainly, many factors can make your blood pressure soar higher than an Albert Pujols home run ..."

    "You don't have diabetes, so you're going to blow off thinking about blood sugar faster than a flight attendant blows off a flirty coach passenger."

    "Even if your numbers in some health categories are as perfect as a Michelle Kwan triple toe loop, you're not risk-free."

    Had enough?

And, is it just me, or do you get the feeling that somebody is chucking every buzz word known to mankind into this book hoping that something, somewhere will punch somebody's happy button?

Well, this has been harder than I thought it was going to be, and there are four more parts to this series! I wish I could report that good writing, not to mention good information, the kind that can genuinely better our lives, is alive and well in 2007 publishing, but it's definitely not in this case. We live in a fix-it society, and You: On a Diet is nothing more than a derivative, fix-it book that doesn't even attempt to plumb the true causes of out-of-control eating. Instead, it teaches us that the solutions to our problems involve nothing more than tinkering with body chemistry, this time via the careful selection and ingestion of foods that are no fun to eat again and again and again. Yeah, it's selling like hot cakes today, but tomorrow, I confidently predict it'll fill dumpsters from sea to shining sea. Unless Oprah stamps her book club logo on it, and that would only delay the inevitable.

In general, I say, diet books be damned. Many of us who have entered bookselling have done so from a background of profoundly loving profoundly good books, loving them because they were well written, informative and, in some cases, life changing. Books at this level are books that will hold their value over the decades, trigger insights within new readers time and time again - all accomplished without an imp in sight - and help build inventories that we can feel satisfaction presenting to our buyers.

Along the way, unfortunately, we may need to sell a few books that don't measure up. Easton Press would no doubt explain that this is the reality of being in business - turning a profit - and I don't pretend to be any different. I have bills to pay too. The only good news I can think of is that bestsellers of this ilk move out the door pretty quickly. I purchased my copy of YOU: On a Diet at Wal-Mart for $14.97 plus tax. After completing this article, I priced it competitively on Amazon for $12.99, and it sold in less than two hours. Expect to encounter droves of this title soon at garage sales near you.

Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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