Self-help, with a twist.
The Secret to Everything has been known to mystics and scholars for centuries and millennia, and, today, is increasingly being confirmed by both philosophy and science. Socrates certainly knew it, as did the Buddha, and more recently, Albert Einstein, Carl Jung, and Emily Dickinson. It is a secret not because it is hidden as such, but because it is so difficult to see, running counter to so many of our most basic assumptions.
Each of the book’s ten chapters exposes a particular aspect and practical application of the secret, while also keeping it carefully under wraps. On the surface, the chapters may seem to have little in common, but they are all built around the same wisdom. Your challenge, as you read, is to find the common thread that runs through all the chapters. The secret is discussed at the end, but don’t peek or you’ll spoil the fun.
Plot: Burton's The Secret to Everything: How to Live More and Suffer Less quite promisingly pairs up disciplined philosophical inquiry with practical self-help advice, drawing "7 Tips for Being More in the Moment" and "5 Ways to Explore Your Darker Side" from the work of Kant, Hume, Sartre, Cicero, and Camus rather than from inspiration mainstays like Norman Vincent Peale. The title's promise that the book will divulge one singular secret that will improve readers' lives makes for a strong hook, and the author, a philosopher himself, memorably teases that idea in the introduction. He asks readers to work out for themselves, as they read, what the "secret" tying all his chapters together actually is, and only in the book's conclusion, "The Secret to Everything," does he lay it out himself. While it's clever to demand and reward reader engagement that way, the risk is that this leaves readers to identify why the individual chapters cover the subjects that they choose or how a chapter focused on Dionysian orgies connects to the next, which covers self-deception.
Prose/Style: Burton's prose is polished, stylish, inviting, and clear, even as he examines fallacies, phenomenology, or existential anxiety. He boils complex ideas down to their essences, and he's adept at guiding readers to challenging conclusions. He shrewdly balances philosophical inquiry and how-to-live advice. He's so committed to concision that at times his chapters could benefit from more prefatory material, especially connecting the ideas of one chapter to another.
Originality: No other work of inspirational or self-help literature contains the sentence "Let me paint you a picture of a Dionysian orgy." If another somehow did, it's difficult to imagine its author justifying its inclusion so adeptly, or then challenging readers to acknowledge and embrace what Carl Jung called our "shadow". Burton's advice and conclusions are original even when drawn from the best-known writing of the world's most famous thinkers; he advocates for idleness, phenomenology, and not being bound by the ego with persuasive power.
Character Development/Execution: Much of Burton's thinking and advice here is memorably presented, convincingly argued, and legitimately challenging. That said, the choice to task the readers with identifying the book's throughline themselves diminishes the book's effectiveness. Rather than witness the rollout of a coherent philosophy from chapter to chapter, readers must labor to determine why individual subjects get covered and why others don't. Even after reaching the book's conclusion, and its unveiling of Burton's overarching secret, readers may well wonder why the chapter titled "How to Win" deals exclusively with the phenomenon of feeling insulted, or why so little of the book touches on interpersonal relationships, conceptions of monetary or workplace success, or other key elements of books with similar titles.
Date Submitted: October 17, 2020