As a subscriber to a number of publishing newsletters, I'm often alerted to free book downloads. Two weeks ago, intrigued by a blurb for "The Most Important Book You'll Ever Read," I opened a pdf of Aim High! 101 Tips for Teens. Good thing it was free-I would have felt cheated at the cover price of $9.75 plus shipping. The 128 pages take about 10 minutes to read because there are only 20 to 50 words on each page: two or three "tips" organized under such headings as "Friends," "Talk," "Respect," and other worthy themes. What kind of tips? Here's the sum of wisdom under "Responsibility": "Accept responsibility. Take responsibility for what you do. Be a good person." That's it.
The book is apparently self-published and the author a canny marketer. He promotes his work as a conversation-starter, not a definitive word. Aim High! is aimed at the lowest common denominator, both in socio-economic background and reading ability, and steers away from any identifiable religious affiliation. It is sold only online, not in stores (which may indicate a becoming modesty about appearing in public with real books). Its many positive statements, basic as they are, may be an improvement over the muddled "values clarification" exercises so popular in the 1980s and '90s, and the book has been commended in respectable quarters. But still . . .
It says something about the shallowness of public morals that the strongest condemnation in Aim High! is against smoking. Drugs are also bad, but alcohol is bad when combined with driving. Not a word about sex, beyond "respect" for the opposite, which is defined as appreciating the "many similarities and differences." But what may be worse than a simplistic treatment of morality and ethics is lumping the same with success and happiness: making goodness just another "tip." Sometimes goodness doesn't equal success, or happiness; sometimes pain can't be avoided. How does one deal with suffering beyond "When things are bad, keep your positive spirit and remember tomorrow will be a better day"? But if tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow are equally bad, what then?
The real value of Aim High! may be as a stark and simplified example of the state of self-help today. Other advice books for teens use more words, but boil down to the same bland essence. This coloring-book morality only works if the shapes are rigid and simple, the lines are clear, and we all stay within the lines. But they aren't, and we don't. "The purpose in a man's heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out" (Proverbs 20:5).
Goodness is not simply a matter of deciding to be good. The distinctions between public manners and private character, disagreement and depravity, intention and action, goals and means are often subtle and need discernment. If teens are taught to read and think, they are capable of learning discernment, but that's a big if. What most self-help books for teenagers demonstrate is the crying need for an objective standard of morality (such as the Bible), which is the very thing we've lost.