Want A New You For The New Year? These Books Might Actually Help

Jan 9, 2018
Originally published on January 8, 2018 10:35 pm

It's the second week of 2018, and if you are still resolved to improve your life in this new year, Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer may be able to help. They host a podcast called By The Book, and for each episode, they choose one self-help book and live by its rules for a couple of weeks. So they're well-equipped to tell us which of these books has actually improved their lives — and which ones to avoid.

On Greenberg's recommendation, The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo

Greenberg: I love it. I feel like especially in the New Year, it's just a real nice way to cleanse your space and make it feel kind of brand new. And I think it's something that most Americans could probably use to do. I know I could. I like buying stuff. For me, it's clothes and squirrel-related tchotchkes, and they accumulate, you know? And sometimes you might have to go through all your clothes or squirrel collection and hold each item and think about, does this really bring me joy? Or am I keeping it out of obligation? Has it already served its purpose? And to just sort of purge all of these things we let build up around us that don't necessarily make us happy anymore.

Meinzer: I think the lifestyle is absurd. It's ridiculous. You know, she cannot have anything on a counter-top. She cannot have any art on walls. If you want anything pretty, you put it inside your closet so when you open your closet you can look at your art. But anything that's out for the world to see is considered clutter. All of this is ridiculous to me and so this book made me very mad, and my husband and I, who love each other very much, fought while we were living this book, and you can hear it in our show. And it's because he got sick of the fact that every time he took a shower, he had to take the shampoo out of a separate cupboard, bring it to the shower and then afterward wipe it off, thank it, and put it in a cupboard.

On Meinzer's recommendation, America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right On The Money by Steve and Annette Economides

Meinzer: This family is amazing. They've paid off their house, their cars, all of their clothes are second-hand. They only go grocery shopping one day a month, because if you go grocery shopping more you'll be tempted to do some impulse buying, so they do one giant grocery shopping trip a month and then they make a months' worth of frozen meals and they do all sorts of wacky things like that, and I just loved it. And they have three levels of how to live their lifestyle, so even if you're a beginner, if you're not ready to go grocery shopping only one time for the whole month, maybe you can start off by going grocery shopping only once a week.

Greenberg: I feel like Kristen does, sort of, about Marie Kondo, where if you try to live the way they do — like they are crazy people. Most people who write self-help books are. They're very extreme people. They say shop once a month, and basically you only have fresh food for first week of that month, but they also say you know planning meals helps cut down on impulse purchases, which I did, you know, sort of take to heart and I try to plan meals more so when I go grocery shopping I don't just go nuts. But I do buy vegetables every week.

On the book they both advise everyone to avoid in the New Year

Greenberg: We both agree on Men are from Mars, Women Are From Venus by John Gray. ... This book, according to Time magazine, is the bestselling non-fiction book of the '90s. So my parents had this book; everyone's parent's had this book. And Kristen and I are both relative newlyweds, and I was super excited to read this book and gain some actual insights on married life. But turns out, we found it to be incredibly sexist and really condescending towards women.

Meinzer: Yeah, I mean, if you're a woman, your job is basically just to validate your man and stop nagging him so much, and not be upset when he doesn't speak to you for weeks or months at a time.

Greenberg: Don't forget "knight in shining armor," a phrase used often in this book. It's basically men have to feel like a knight in shining armor. Otherwise, like, they will leave you.

On how people should approach self-help books

Meinzer: I think they should listen to our show and hear how our lives are ruined by a lot of these books! Listen to our show and hear what parts of information work for Jolenta or work for me. So if somebody listens to the show and they know from day one, [they're] a Jolenta, they know that America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right on the Money is going to make them want to throw themselves off a bridge ... and when Jolenta is loving some aspect of a book that gives her a chance to look at her throat chakras and then light candles and rub her crystals, and I want to just punch all the crystals, people know, oh, this is a better book for Jolenta and not a good book for Kristen.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

2018 is only just a week old, and if you are still resolved to improve your life in this new year our next guests may be able to help. Jolenta Greenberg and Kristen Meinzer host a podcast called By The Book. For each episode, they choose one self-help book and live by its rules for a couple weeks. They're here to recommend books that have actually improved their lives and help steer us clear of those that haven't. Welcome.

KRISTEN MEINZER: Thanks for having us.

JOLENTA GREENBERG: Hi. Yeah, I'm so excited to be here.

SHAPIRO: So to start with, will you each tell us a book that you really loved that you could actually see yourself living by?

GREENBERG: Oh, I would definitely have to recommend "The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up" by Marie Kondo.

SHAPIRO: This is one of the most famous self-help books...

GREENBERG: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Out there written by a Japanese author. Jolenta, why do you love it?

GREENBERG: I love it - I feel like especially in the New Year it's just a real nice way to cleanse your space and make it feel kind of brand-new. And I think it's something that most Americans could, like, probably use to do. I know I could. I like buying stuff. For me, it's clothes and squirrel-related tchotchkes. And they accumulate...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GREENBERG: ...You know? And you - sometimes you might have to go through all your clothes or squirrel collection and hold each item and think about, does this really bring me joy, or am I keeping it out of obligation? Has it already served its purpose? And to just sort of purge all of these things we let build up around us that don't necessarily make us happy anymore.

SHAPIRO: The book prescribes this as kind of a consistent lifestyle, but I got the sense from listening to the episode that you preferred it as a one-time experience that you might do every year or every few years.

GREENBERG: Right. Right. There are things about the lifestyle that I've kept. Marie Kondo teaches you good ways to fold all your clothes that I find are very space-efficient. Kristen is looking at me rolling her eyes (laughter).

MEINZER: Yeah, I think the lifestyle is absurd. It's ridiculous. You know, she cannot have anything on a countertop. She cannot have any art on walls. If you want anything pretty, you put it inside your closet so when you open your closet you can look at your art. But anything that's out for the world to see is considered clutter. All of this is ridiculous to me.

And so this book made me very mad. And my husband and I, who love each other very much, fought while we were living this book. And you can hear it in our show. And it's because he got sick of the fact that every time he took a shower he had to take the shampoo out of a separate cupboard...

SHAPIRO: Right.

MEINZER: ...Bring it to the shower, and then afterward wipe it off, thank it and put it in a cupboard.

GREENBERG: Thank it, yeah.

MEINZER: Yes.

SHAPIRO: Thank the shampoo. Yeah.

GREENBERG: Yeah.

MEINZER: Thank you for your service, shampoo.

GREENBERG: I mean, obviously it's a little extreme, as are all self-help books.

SHAPIRO: Kristen, you are not a big fan of the Marie Kondo book. What's a book that you think was really useful?

MEINZER: Well, I just loved when we were living on "America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right On The Money" by Steve and Annette Economides. This family is amazing. They paid off their house, their cars. All of their clothes are secondhand. They only go grocery shopping one day a month because if you go grocery shopping more you'll be tempted to do some impulse buying. So they do one giant grocery shopping trip a month and then they make a month's worth of frozen meals.

And they do all sorts of other wacky things like that. And I just loved it. And they have three levels of how to live their lifestyle. So even if you're a beginner, if you're not ready to go grocery shopping only one time for the whole month, maybe you can start off by going grocery shopping only once a week.

SHAPIRO: Kristen, what's one practice from this book that you're still doing today?

MEINZER: Oh, I'm just cheap. I'm doing everything...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

GREENBERG: She likes this book because it just - they just...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) 'Cause it told her to do what she was already doing.

GREENBERG: Yeah.

MEINZER: Yeah, make...

GREENBERG: Trick yourself into being cheap all the time, which is what Kristen does, so of course she's going to recommend it.

MEINZER: Yeah. They make saving more fun than spending. And I love saving.

SHAPIRO: Is there one specific thing that this book taught you to do differently that you're still doing?

MEINZER: Well, one thing that...

GREENBERG: You did learn you could freeze kale.

MEINZER: Oh, I did.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

MEINZER: I learned that I could freeze kale because I was stockpiling so many groceries doing this...

SHAPIRO: The most NPR moment of 2018 to date.

GREENBERG: I was going to say, is this the most NPR, like, new year, new you we can do for you?

(LAUGHTER)

GREENBERG: Frozen kale?

MEINZER: Yes. You cannot freeze avocado toast, however.

SHAPIRO: OK. Duly noted. Jolenta, what did you think of this book?

GREENBERG: I feel like Kristen does sort of about Marie Kondo where if you try to live the way they do - like, they are crazy people. Most people who write self-help books are. They're very extreme people. They say shop once a month, and basically you only have fresh food for the first week of that month. But they also say, you know, planning meals helps cut down on impulse purchases, which I did, you know, sort of take to heart. And I try to plan meals more so when I go grocery shopping I don't just go nuts. But I do buy vegetables every week.

SHAPIRO: Give us some books that you would avoid at all costs.

MEINZER: Oh, my gosh.

GREENBERG: Oh.

MEINZER: Jolenta and I agree on one for sure.

GREENBERG: We both agree on "Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus" by John Gray.

SHAPIRO: Which is such a famous, successful book.

GREENBERG: Which is why it was so disappointing.

SHAPIRO: What disappointed you about it?

GREENBERG: This book, according to Time magazine, is the best-selling nonfiction book of the '90s. So my parents had this book. Everyone's parents had this book. And Kristen and I are both relative newlyweds. And I was super excited to read this book and gain some actual insights on married life. But turns out we found it to be incredibly sexist and really condescending towards women.

MEINZER: Yeah. I mean, if you're a woman your job is really just to validate your man and stop nagging him so much and not be upset with him when he doesn't speak to you for weeks or months at a time.

GREENBERG: Don't forget knight in shining armor...

MEINZER: Oh, yes, treat him...

GREENBERG: ...A phrase used often in this book.

MEINZER: Yeah.

GREENBERG: It's basically men have to feel like a knight in shining armor. Otherwise, like, they will leave you.

SHAPIRO: Did it make you think differently about your parents knowing that they read this book and liked it or at least found it a little useful?

GREENBERG: It made me feel bad for them that a man is sort of peddling dated gender roles as biological differences. Like, I just felt bad for them that that was the only resource.

SHAPIRO: This raises the question of, can you really undertake a self-help book program on your own? It seems like a lot of the things you do sort of drag your spouse along for the ride.

MEINZER: Oh, yeah.

GREENBERG: Yeah.

MEINZER: They're trapped in this with us. Yeah. And whether or not they want to be involved, they end up involved. They end up affected. For example, when we were living by a book called "French Women Don't Get Fat" there was a 48-hour period where Jolenta and I were only allowed to have the boiled water that comes off of leeks. We were allowed to boil leeks and then drink the water...

GREENBERG: The broth.

MEINZER: ...For 48 hours.

SHAPIRO: That sounds miserable.

MEINZER: They called it leek soup, but it was really just, like, leek water.

GREENBERG: Leek water.

MEINZER: And the way that we were as very hungry, very angry women, they had to live with that.

GREENBERG: There was lots of yelling and crying.

MEINZER: There was yelling and crying. And we didn't even talk about it in the episode, but, like, you know, all the gas that comes from, like, living on this diet, all the...

GREENBERG: There's so much dairy.

MEINZER: There's a lot of dairy and there's a lot of leeks.

GREENBERG: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: You two have set a program for yourselves where you're living by a different self-help book every couple weeks. The self-help books themselves sort of ask you to sign your whole life over to the program that they prescribe. How would you recommend an average person approach this genre of books as a whole?

MEINZER: I think they should listen to our show and hear how our lives are ruined...

SHAPIRO: Good answer.

MEINZER: ...By a lot of these books.

GREENBERG: Yes. Best answer.

MEINZER: Yes. Listen to our show and hear what parts of information work for Jolenta or work for me. So if somebody listens to the show and they know from day one, I'm a Jolenta, they know that "America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right On The Money" is going to make them want to throw themselves off a bridge. They know this. So they know...

GREENBERG: That's a fact if you're a Jolenta.

MEINZER: ...What they should follow and what not to follow. And when Jolenta is loving some aspect of a book that gives her a chance to look at her throat chakras and then light candles...

SHAPIRO: Right.

MEINZER: ...And rub her crystals and I want to just punch all the crystals, people know, oh, this is a better book for Jolenta and not a good book for Kristen.

SHAPIRO: That's Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg. You can hear more about their adventures translating the rules of self-help books into real life on their podcast By The Book. Thank you so much.

MEINZER: Thanks so much.

GREENBERG: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF KATALYST SONG, "THE CLAPPING SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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