In the world of publishing, a self-help author who manages to stop after one book is as rare as a poet who gets booked onto Larry King. Sooner or later, even those whose first books claimed to encapsulate all of human philosophy since Aristotle go scrounging for leftover insights that can propel them back to the top of the bestseller lists. Take the erstwhile Australian television producer Rhonda Byrne, whose monumental 2006 bestseller The Secret laid bare “the law that determines the complete order in the Universe, every moment of your life, and every single thing you experience.” Following that—and The Secret Gratitude Book (2007) and The Secret Daily Teachings (2008)—what more was there to say?
Enough, it turns out, to half fill the 250 extremely small pages of her new opus, The Power, which the day after publication this week ranked in the top five on Amazon. This was in spite of Byrne’s apparent refusal to give interviews or publicize the book in any way, a subject of some speculation in publishing circles. It’s easy to dismiss someone like Byrne as a marginal crackpot, but The Secret has 19 million copies in print, according to her publisher, Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. To put it another way, about eight times as many people shelled out money for Rhonda Byrne’s thoughts as listen to Glenn Beck’s for free (in an average week). Maybe we ought to pay more attention to what she has to say.
This is easy, since she tends to say the same thing over and over. The Power is a distillation of the central insight of The Secret: the “law of attraction.” It’s still true, apparently, that you can get anything you want, from parking spots to cures for obscure diseases, just by wishing for them and pretending they are already in your possession. But there are some new observations in The Power, such as the importance of being nice to your water. Researchers in several countries, she writes, “have discovered that when water is exposed to positive words and feelings such as love and gratitude, the energy level of the water not only increases, but the structure of the water changes, making it perfectly harmonious ... When water is exposed to negative emotions, such as hate, the energy level of the water decreases and chaotic changes occur.” Since “the inside of your head is 80 percent water,” you can see how important this is.
Or maybe you can’t, since it’s gibberish, but all you really need to take away from Byrne is that “feelings” are everything that matters in life. The “power” of the title is the power of love, the mainspring of the universe. A good part of The Power describes how Byrne greets each blessed moment with overwhelming love and gratitude toward all creation. You can do that even if you haven’t been collecting royalties on tens of millions of books and DVDs, as she has. But it’s also a crucial prerequisite for her future success, or anyone’s, since what you put out in love, “the Universe” pays back in wish fulfillment. She emphasizes that this is a literal, physical property of the universe, even quoting “Indian political leader” Mahatma Gandhi in support: “Whether humanity will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not disturb me. The law will work just as the law of gravitation works whether we accept it or not.” Byrne, without irony, juxtaposes this with a passage about how having “positive thoughts and feelings about money” are the way to become rich. She doesn’t give the context for Gandhi’s quote, but I’ll bet he had something different in mind when he said it.
But what does Gandhi really mean to us these days, anyway, with his beggar’s bowl, his simple white dhoti, his endless struggle to subsume his ego into a greater cause? The endless bounty of the universe could supply every peasant in India with all the goodies Byrne cites in The Power, and more: a new skirt that she admired in Paris that miraculously showed up weeks later in a store window near her home, a horse that “a woman” pined for and won in a lottery, a bigger tax refund, a parking spot right outside the supermarket door. Byrne depicts herself as a fount of “love” and “gratitude” and warm wishes toward anyone who crosses her path, and while I have no reason to doubt her, her philosophy is self-centered to the point of solipsism: “As far as the law of attraction is concerned, there is only one person in the world—you! There is only you, because the law of attraction is responding to your feelings! It’s only what you give that counts.”
Got that, Mahatma? It’s really all about you, or it was until you were assassinated—an event that Byrne evidently would attribute to your crummy attitude. (Death, like poverty, is subject to the law of attraction: “People once lived for hundreds and hundreds of years,” she writes, citing “ancient texts” as her authority. “So what’s happened? People changed what they believed.”) And in Byrne’s life, it’s all about her: “Whenever I hear something, even if they are words from a conversation of two strangers who are standing near me, if I can hear their words, their words have meaning in my life. Their words are a message for me, they’re relevant to me, and they’re giving me feedback on my life. If I am traveling and I notice a sign and I read the words, those words have meaning for me.” There is, as it happens, a term for this belief. It’s called “ideas of reference,” and it is a common symptom of psychosis. I have no reason to think that Byrne is crazy, but The Power is certainly a deeply, disturbingly strange book. I didn’t think it was possible to give love a bad name, but after reading The Power, all I can hope is that Byrne puts a little ... something else in her heart. I recommend the power of reason.