Weisberg’s subjects are columnists, self-help magnates, life coaches, and kind retirees with an internet connection, from Benjamin Franklin to Ann Landers to a prolific Quora contributor named Michael King. They represent a range of attitudes and approaches, and an eclectic, though limited range of experiences ... their work, Weisberg argues, offers a uniquely direct window onto American emotional needs throughout the country’s history ... Weisberg is generous with her subjects, and her scope is wide-reaching: She tackles sixteen profiles with surprising coherence. Each chapter has the clarity and clip of a well-produced podcast episode...and she has an instinct for details that sit memorably askance from the narrative and catalyze interest.
One woman wrote to her [Ann Landers] seeking advice about her 2-year-old daughter, whom she described as 'the homeliest child I had ever seen.' ... 'How sad that you attach so much importance to good looks,' Landers clapped back. 'Get some counseling, Mother. You’ve got a geranium in your cranium.' This is the sort of wicked tidbit served up by Weisberg, who has wisely opted to present chapter-length essays on key figures of the genre rather than attempt a comprehensive history (although I don’t doubt that her research was exhaustive). Her final chapter focuses on Mike King ... He tells Weisberg that his goal is to 'try to leave people with the impression that they’re not stupid, even if they are.'
This engaging, documented, and thoughtfully presented overview of advice givers begins in 1691, with British 'seers' ... Weisberg provides historical context that frames trending angsts within bygone eras, explaining the consuming popularity of these pundits. This journey through collective incertitude doesn’t seek to answer any of life’s pressing questions, but it sure offers an enjoyable ride.
The most engaging chapters are those in which Weisberg participates in some fashion. She attends a Dale Carnegie workshop, interviews advisers, and brings personal perspective. She also provides plenty of historical nuggets, reminding us that Dear Abby and Ann Landers were estranged identical twins and that Elisabeth Kübler-Ross helped found the hospice movement. The tone is generally informative, though sometimes critical and even cynical. A swift account of an industry that bubbles with bluster and marinates in money.