Sage advice from Columbia’s Manhattanville propagandist
By Luca Marzorati
The Alphabets of Life: A Simple Guide to Living Simply by La-Verna J. Fountain
Travers Pr, 241
The late comedian George Carlin was no fan of self-help books. “There’s no such thing as self-help,” he said. “If you did it yourself, you didn’t need help. You did it yourself!”
Carlin would have undoubtedly dropped at least one of his seven dirty words when reading The Alphabets of Life: A Simple Guide to Living Simply by La-Verna J. Fountain. The book, published in 1999, is a collection of 26 alphabetized advice essays, from “Accept What You Cannot Change” to “Zealously Pursue Your Life.”
In her day job, Fountain is Vice President for Construction Business Services and Communications at Columbia, which has made her a de facto press secretary for the Manhattanville expansion. When not defending the university in the press, Fountain is a motivational speaker, part of a $10 billion industry dedicated to telling people how to better their lives.
The Alphabets of Life demonstrates Fountain’s ability to simplify complex problems into pithy statements, a skill conducive to success in both motivational speaking and defending a university accused of ripping off the neighborhood it is taking over. Hearing Fountain tell the Columbia Spectator that “Columbia, as a landlord, is doing exactly as tenants expect” sounds slightly less bizarre coming from someone who repeatedly insists that “facts change” throughout her book. Fountain’s aphorisms range in quality from charming to cringe-worthy: in a single chapter, her prose ranges from “Emotions are like a spice” to “The mind. Wow.”
Like most in the motivation industry, Fountain does not operate in life’s grey areas. Her book begins, “What can you change? Then, change it! What can’t you change? Then, move on!” This Nieburhian adaptation is simple enough; the reader cannot be judged for wondering how Fountain will fill the other 25 alphabetized chapters. Yet fill them she does, with anecdotes from family and friends, religious proclamations, and a page of exercises and questions at the end of each section.
The interactive element of The Alphabets of Life—the “self” in “self-help”—was the book’s most puzzling aspect. After the first chapter, Fountain introduces an exercise that involves writing a worry on a piece of paper (its size should be “comparable to how you feel about the situation”). Fountain then instructs her reader to “Take the paper, and throw it away, burn it or flush it down the toilet.” (Does she recommend the same to high level Columbia administrators? Can we expect to see ash heaps outside of Low, with charred paper reading “Sexual assault” or “Football”?) In the ‘I’ chapter, Fountain gives her reader specific instructions: “On Wednesday, ask a child what peace looks like. Think about it.” Later, she switches from a conversation about the “impending love revolution” to instructing her readers to begin their day by looking into a mirror and hugging themselves.
Fountain goes for the personal touch: nearly every copy of The Alphabets of Life is signed by the author. In the final chapter—titled “Zealously Pursue Your Life”—the author instructs her readers to send her a self-addressed postcard with their dreams. She vows to return it “when you least expect it,” cementing a possibly eternal bond between writer and reader.
Perhaps the only test of a self-help book is if it actually helps. I tried keeping Fountain’s mantras in mind for a brief period of time, practicing not only the Golden Rule but the Platinum Rule: “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.” But it was a challenge: attempting to complete the activities at the end of chapters, I found myself wandering through libraries and creating meditation diaries. I quickly scrapped the project. I think Carlin was right about self-help books. If you can figure out the secret, think big, or develop the seven healthy habits, you probably didn’t need the book in the first place.