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The Power of Negative Thinking



Recently a friend posted on Facebook that, after years of struggle against two different kinds of cancer, she was going into hospice care. She is smart, funny and unafraid. Her heartbreaking news generated the expected outpouring of love and support, including a number of messages repeating the popular current sentiment: You got this.

She got what? I wondered. Is she supposed to feel reassured by that? Congratulations, you’re gonna rock death! You got thisis the popular rallying cry to any number of painful scenarios, from “My flight was delayed” to “I’m getting a divorce” to, well, this. Sometimes, we don’t got this. Which may be why several new books on happiness are also addressing the negative side of positivity — making the point that, while the pursuit of happiness is a worthy goal, relentless positivity doesn’t really lead us to that goal, and can actually end up damaging us. The happiness scholar Tal Ben-Shahar compares the relentless pursuit of happiness, happiness as a value, to sunlight. The sun is vital for life on earth, but if you stare directly at it, you can go blind.

“Positivity lingo lacks nuance, compassion and curiosity. It comes in the form of blanket statements that tell someone how to feel and that the feeling they’re currently having is wrong,” writes the therapist Whitney Goodman in TOXIC POSITIVITY: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed With Being Happy (TargerPerigee, 304 pp., $26). In other words, if it’s bad to harsh someone’s mellow, it’s sometimes worse to mellow someone’s harsh. The book is a bracing tonic meant to counteract society’s pressure to be a living, breathing smile emoji. “Toxic positivity,” Goodman explains, comes out of an understandable desire to fix things — but when we can’t, we become stressed and feel helpless.

She details the situations where positivity ends up being, as she puts it, “a Band-Aid on a bullet wound”: when you’re dealing with grief from death or abandonment, job loss, racism and homophobia or mental health issues. Sometimes all we want is for someone to acknowledge how awful a situation is and just sit with us. We don’t need advice or to have someone tell us how resilient we are.

Much of Cy Wakeman’s LIFE’S MESSY, LIVE HAPPY: Things Don’t Have to Be Perfect for You to Be Content (St. Martin’s, 256 pp., $28.99) is conventional happiness palaver, and some of it strikes me as just plain wrong. (“Stress and suffering don’t come from reality, they come from the stories we make up about reality.” Really? Tell that to the poor Mississippi woman who needs an abortion.). She also contradicts herself. At one point, in decrying victimhood, she states, “Anything but gratitude is just a tantrum” — and a few chapters later, she’s telling us to “feel all your feels.” Hmm. What if I feel like I’m going to punch the next person who tells me to be grateful?

But what’s useful about this book — by an executive business coach who has faced being broke, homeless and alone at points — is that it encourages us to give up the idea that being in control is essential to happiness. In fact, Wakeman says, this belief may be one of the single biggest impediments to contentment.

Wakeman is an excellent storyteller, and her stories are particularly helpful when discussing how to move through a period of loss — and how other cultures are significantly better at dealing with death than we are. She describes a father from Africa whose 6-year-old daughter died in a bike accident. What could be worse? Social workers who encountered him didn’t think he was appropriately sad — but, Wakeman writes, “His daughter had a short, blessed life. When he thought of her, he told me, he could only feel grateful and happy. ‘She tasted the very sweetest part of life,’ he said.” We can’t always will ourselves to reframe tragedy, but I will think of this story the next time I hear of a beloved child’s death.

HAPPY PEOPLE ARE ANNOYING (HarperOne, 256 pp., $26.99) is not, as I thought when I picked it up, a traditional self-help book on how to tame the pathologically cheerful among us. It is, rather, an amusing and smart memoir by the Nickelodeon actor and YouTube star Josh Peck, whose life checks all the boxes about how comedians are fueled by sadness. But he does offer some interesting insights about the role of misery as a motivator.

After a fatherless childhood (or rather, a childhood knowing that he had a father somewhere — a great father to other kids — just not one interested in getting to know him), Peck spent years filling that void with food, drugs and alcohol. That pursuit of happiness resulted first in obesity and then, deftly subbing one substance for another, years of drug addiction. When he stopped chasing the pretense of happiness and started spending time in A.A., he began to reclaim his life. Here, Peck learned to “be in the efforts business, not in the results” — because by putting in the effort, the results will follow. While he doesn’t give us precise GPS directions for turning our lives around, the changes he made in his own life, the focus on others and not on himself, suggest a map we can follow.

Judith Newman is the author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines.”


Victor LaValle Likes to Stare Directly at His Deepest Fears



“People sometimes ask why I want to read horror at all, let alone write it,” says the horror novelist, whose new book is “Lone Women.” “So much writing glances off the hardest and worst experiences, but horror confronts the worst that happens. … A good horror novel doesn’t lie to you.”

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Hoover Biographer Wins American History Book Prize



Beverly Gage, the author of “G-Man: J. Edgar Hoover and the Making of the American Century,” has been named the winner of the New-York Historical Society’s 2023 Barbara and David Zalaznick Book Prize, which is awarded annually for the best work of American history or biography.

The first major biography of Hoover written in three decades, “G-Man” draws on a wealth of previously unseen or uncensored documents, including many obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. Over 837 pages, Gage, a professor at Yale University, takes a panoramic view of Hoover’s 48 years as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, looking not just at his infamous harassment campaigns against civil rights leaders in the 1960s but also his central role in the modernization of the bureau, which often won him the admiration of liberals.

Reviewing the book last year in The New York Times, Jennifer Szalai called it a “revelatory” portrait that shows Hoover “for who he really was — less an outsider to the so-called postwar consensus than an integral part of it.”

Gage’s book, published by Viking, was also a winner of this year’s Bancroft Prize, awarded by Columbia University and considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history, as well as a bellwether of trends among academic historians.

The historical society’s prize, which will be awarded at a private event in April, rewards books that are accessible to a general audience. It often focuses on political history, and books that keep founders, presidents and other major figures, and their great deeds (or misdeeds), at the center of the story. Past winners of the prize, which comes with a cash award of $50,000, have included Alan Taylor, Jill Lepore, Jane Kamensky and Gordon S. Wood.

In a news release, Agnes Hsu-Tang, the chair of the historical society’s board of trustees, said that Gage “deftly illuminates one of the most complicated personalities in modern American history through descriptive gradations of light and shadow.”

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Attempts to Ban Books Doubled in 2022



Efforts to ban books nearly doubled in 2022 over the previous year, according to a report published Thursday by the American Library Association. The organization tracked 1,269 attempts to ban books and other resources in libraries and schools, the highest number of complaints since the association began studying censorship efforts more than 20 years ago.

The analysis offers a snapshot of the spike in censorship, but most likely fails to capture the magnitude of bans. The report is compiled from book challenges that library professionals reported to the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, and it also relies on information gathered from news reports.

Book removals have exploded in recent years, and have become a galvanizing issue for conservative groups and elected officials. Fights over what books belong on library shelves have caused bitter rifts on school boards and in communities, and have been amplified by social media and political campaigns.

With the increasingly organized campaigns to remove titles on certain topics, books have become a proxy in a broader culture war over issues like L.G.B.T.Q. rights, gender identity and racial inequality.

Of the 2,571 unique titles that drew complaints in 2022 — up from 1,858 books in 2021 — a vast majority were books by or about L.G.B.T.Q. people, or books by or about people of color, the association found. Many of the same books are targeted for removal in schools and libraries around the country — among them classics like Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and newer works like Juno Dawson’s “This Book is Gay” and Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer.”

Book bans have affected public libraries as well as schools: In 2022, some 60 percent of complaints that the association tracked were directed at books and materials in school libraries and classrooms, while around 40 percent of challenges were aimed at material in public libraries.

The development is worrisome for educators and librarians, who have increasingly come under fire for the books in their collections. Some librarians have been accused of peddling obscenity or promoting pedophilia; others have been harassed online by people calling for them to be fired or even arrested. Some libraries have been threatened with a loss of public funding over their refusal to remove books.

Efforts to remove books began to rise during the pandemic, often spreading from one community or school district to another through social media, as lists of books flagged as inappropriate circulated online. The movement has been supercharged by a network of conservative groups — including organizations like Moms for Liberty and Utah Parents United — that have pushed for book removals and have lobbied for new policies that change the way library collections are formed and book complaints are handled.

“Overwhelmingly, we’re seeing these challenges come from organized censorship groups that target local library board meetings to demand removal of a long list of books they share on social media,” Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of the association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, said in a news release about the report.

Increasingly, challenges are being filed against multiple books, whereas in the past, libraries more frequently received complaints about a single title, the group said.

Some librarians and free speech advocates are also alarmed by new legislation that aims to regulate the content of libraries, or the way librarians do their jobs. Last year, laws that impose restrictions on libraries were passed in seven states, including Tennessee, Oklahoma, Florida and Utah, according to analysis done by EveryLibrary, a political action committee for libraries.

Recently, Republicans in the House introduced a “Parents Bill of Rights,” proposed legislation that some educational advocacy organizations worry could lead to a rise in book bans. The bill, which was sponsored by Representative Julia Letlow, a Republican from Louisiana, requires that parents have access to “a list of the books and other reading materials available in the library of their child’s school.”

Some librarians and teachers who are concerned by the spike in book bans argue that the notion of parental rights should not enable a small group of parents to decide what books all other students and families can access.

“Each attempt to ban a book by one of these groups represents a direct attack on every person’s constitutionally protected right to freely choose what books to read and what ideas to explore,” Caldwell-Stone said in a statement. “The choice of what to read must be left to the reader or, in the case of children, to parents. That choice does not belong to self-appointed book police.”

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