If you’re like many readers, your relationship with self-help/self-improvement books probably looks something like this: read a book on a topic that interests you and come away with inspiration and actionable tips that can easily be incorporated into your daily life. Easy, right? Now imagine committing two weeks of your life to following the advice of a self-help book to the letter, then discussing your personal experiences publically. Well, that ’s exactly what Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg did when they created the By the Book podcast, now in its third season. Tackling bestsellers such as The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, The Secret, and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, Jolenta and Kristen explore the world of self-help with humor, sharp wit and compassion, and their oh-so relatable stories have earned them a dedicated and engaged following.
Kristen and Jolenta spoke with BBL about their views on the self-help genre, building a fan base, and the consequences of bringing their marriages into the podcast. Here’s what they said.
Books for Better Living (BBL): Kristen, I know you were very skeptical of self-help books in the beginning, and Jolenta, I understand that you were always a big fan of the genre. How have your opinions changed over the course of this show?
Kristen Meinzer: I have to say, I’ve become a little more tolerant of them. I’ve come to see self-help books as actually occupying a feminist space that stops women from being left out of what society would call traditional or mainstream medicine. It makes sense that wellness, and women, and feminism would all intersect with each other because women have been seen as “the other” for so long. Whenever science or medicine or pharmaceutical companies look for test subjects, they look for 18-35-year-old white males. They’re not looking for people like us.
And, as a result of that, I think I’ve come to see self-help as something that is worthy of the public’s attention. I understand how it ties in with our culture and history, and that the rise of the era of Enlightenment overlaps with the increase of self-help in America. Meaning, it just makes sense that with America’s obsession with religion and self-improvement, that people would be drawn to self-help. I see it in a bigger context now — sometimes even in a more hopeful context.
Jolenta Greenberg: For me, I expected to go into this project just reading books and finding tidbits that might change my life in a substantial way. But what I’ve found in reading all of these books and living by the advice they provide, is that I’m not always going to have some big aha moment. My breakthroughs come in the form of uncovering what I truly dislike. I’m more aware of what doesn’t work for me, even if it works for everyone else. And I’m learning little tidbits here and there about what I really love. I love folding my clothes the way we learned in the KonMari episode. I still don’t like getting up early, but I’m glad I experimented with it. And now I know that’s not for me.
BBL: It seems like you both have made slight changes to the way you think, and you have learned more about yourselves in the process. That’s great! How old were you when you read your first self-help book, and what was the book?
Greenberg: Oh, my gosh. Like, a kid. Whatever year Tyra Banks’ Tyra’s Beauty Inside and Out came out. It was in ’98, so I would have been 12. That was one of the books I sought out, where I was like, “I like Tyra. I want to learn from her about how to put on eyeshadow and do a French braid.” Or whatever was in that book.
Meinzer: I think I was younger than that. I came from a family that was — the women, in particular, — quite into their weight and into their appearance, and I’m pretty sure I was reading diet books before I was 10 years old.
Greenberg: Are you serious?
Meinzer: Mm-hmm. In our episode “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” I spoke about how I’ve been on and off diets from the time I was a child. I couldn’t tell you which diet book I read first but I remember some of the covers. I remember some of the parts of the book. I remember some of the tips.
I’m not surprised that Jolenta’s first self-help book was by Tyra Banks, because I think that for a lot of young girls, the entry point into self-help is how to get prettier, how to get skinnier, how to become more appealing, how to dress better, and so on.
Greenberg: Tyra was probably in her “Angel” days, like her Victoria’s Secret days when this book came out. So she was like a Victoria’s Secret Angel and I was like, “I need to be like her.”
BBL: I love how much you engage with your listeners, especially on your Facebook group, which is a super-engaged community. It’s heartwarming to see how the show has helped others work through their own issues. Were you surprised to make such deep connections with your listeners?
Greenberg: Yes. I was.
Meinzer: I was, too. The fact is that the By the Book community page was just going to be a place for announcements regarding episodes, live events, and appearances. By episode three, which was the “French Women Don’t Get Fat” episode, we were getting so many letters that we realized we needed to create a community page so that everybody could talk to one another. Jolenta and I can’t answer every single letter, but clearly the people who are writing to us want to talk about how the episode affected their lives. The fact that we have more than 5,000 people in this community is just fantastic. And now they do things like start their own book clubs, so while we’re between seasons, they can talk with each other about books that matter to them.
BBL: Oh, that’s so wonderful.
Meizner: They talk about their marriages, they talk about parenting, they talk about having toxic family members. And sometimes they just really want to ask me or Jolenta or Brad or Dean or Cameron a question directly. And they just get so excited whenever one of us chimes in. But we try to mostly let it be their space where they can talk to each other. We definitely post on there a few times a week, but we mostly try to let them own that space.
Greenberg: In hindsight, it makes sense that we have this level of engagement, considering what we put out is real and highly personal. It’s a very intimate story that we’re telling, so I feel like it makes sense that the people who connect with it want to be as intimate back.
Meinzer: But I have to give credit to Jolenta here because Jolenta — this is all her idea, by the way — asked me around three years ago if I wanted to make this show with her. Jolenta wanted me to do this with her. I’m not somebody who ever set out to be forthcoming with my personal stories. I never wanted to tell people, “Hey, I’m somebody who spent years throwing up and not eating enough.” I don’t want to tell everyone about how my husband and I fight, or how we have sex. Yet, somehow, Jolenta’s magic . . . She is such a wonderful person and such a good friend, and she’s so brave when it comes to opening herself up on the show. She assured me that “this is a safe space” to speak freely.
BBL: What’s the most powerful story you’ve heard from a listener?
Greenberg: That’s a tough one. We heard from a woman when we did our “Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” episode.
Meinzer: Oh, yes, yes, yes.
Greenberg: There was a joke in the book where Marie Kondo talks about how this type of emotional cleansing changes people’s lives and how they go through major revelations after cleaning out their physical and mental space. And often, when women follow the tips shared in this book, they approach Kondo with words of praise, “You changed my life. I cleaned my house, kicked my husband out, got a divorce, and I’ve never been happier.” And we were jokingly asking the question, “Does this book actually cause divorce? This is insane. Are we going to get divorced?” We actually received a letter from a listener that said, “Oh, yeah, I totally got divorced because of this book. I was cleaning everything out and I was like, wait, he doesn’t bring me joy.” I love hearing from listeners who represent the extreme examples in the book where you’re like, “No way. Why is the author even citing this?” And, then, they’re like, “No, no, no. It happens.”
Meinzer: Yeah. It’s always a trip to hear about people who exemplify what the books are about. We have to say, there were two episodes that we found the most interesting. The first was, “What to Say When You Talk to Yourself.” The number of people who reached out to us about how they called themselves garbage every day . . . and how their overall messaging to themselves was hateful . . . Jolenta was really brave in that episode. She played a montage of just some of the horrible things she says to herself in one hour. And the number of people who wrote in and said, “Oh, my God. I didn’t realize that that’s the tape playing in my head all day, too. And thank you, Jolenta, for being so honest with us. And because of you, I finally listened to what I’m saying and I’m upset and I’m disgusted with myself for thinking those things. I’m not going to say things like that to myself anymore.” It was hundreds of listeners. It wasn’t like one, or two, or five, or ten. It was hundreds of listeners.
Greenberg: Yeah, that was a big one.
Meinzer: Yeah, and then on the flip side of it, “The Five Love Languages.”
Greenberg: Oh, my God, yeah. That was your fault.
Meinzer: That was totally my fault. So, Jolenta, Brad, Dean, and I — none of us speaks the love language of gift. I made a snarky comment during that episode in relation to people that need to receive gifts in order to feel loved, “Well, maybe if you need to receive presents in order to feel loved you don’t know what love is.” And then Jolenta was like, “Kristen.” And then I laughed. And I thought it was funny, but for some, the comment struck a nerve, “You are a mean, abusive woman, and you don’t validate anyone but yourself and you’re not nice, Kristen, and I can’t believe you.” But then there were people who just shared fantastic stories. One woman, who I’ll never forget, wrote a note saying, “My father was a very introverted man. He was an awkward man. He was a man of few words. And he would never hug or say ‘I love you.’ But he carved things, and he made presents to give to me and my siblings. And we knew that was the only way he could tell us that he loved us was through those objects.” So, those kinds of stories have been really meaningful to us, too.
BBL: One of the highlights of the show has been getting to know your lovely husbands and getting a glimpse into your relationships. Was it difficult to convince them to participate in the show? And do you see their involvement in the show as almost a working relationship, like bringing your husbands to work? Or is it just like living your lives?
Greenberg: I feel like it’s all of the above. I guess in my experience my husband was a bit reluctant to the idea. He works in media as well and didn’t want to be an accidental character in something that he doesn’t have to do. But, also, he can’t help but have input and want to share his opinion with all of the crazy things we do. Now, he’s really enjoying it. And we’ll start having conversations about whatever thing I did today for By the Book, and he’ll be like, “Hold on, hold on. Get your phone, you should be recording this.” And sometimes I’ll tell him, “Hey, tomorrow I want to check in with you about X, Y, and Z, and I’m going to record it.” Or sometimes, something will just pop up in conversation and I’ll be like, “Oh, oh, can I get this on tape? I may not use it, but we’re heading in a direction that’s interesting.”
Meinzer: And I have to say, Dean is a little bit different. He’s never worked in media before. He had no idea what he was getting into. And he’s just kind of like the innocent one. Some of the things have been a bit harrowing like, “My wife is relapsing into her disordered eating and is weighing herself 50 times a day.” So some of it has been challenging, but on the flip side, he feels like he’s famous now and he loves it.
Greenberg: He is the biggest ham. He loves coming into the office, and we record with him in the studio, and everyone loves meeting Dean, the husband. It’s the cutest.
BBL: Okay, last question: What do you read when you’re not reading self-help books?
Meinzer: I mostly read novels. I’ve been in the same book club for seven or eight years. We read novels, primarily, that are mostly written by women and people of color, which was part of the plan from the get-go. We’re currently reading Educated: A Memoir, by Tara Westover which was really fascinating. Another one I liked quite a bit was Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi, which is novel that came out, I think it was last year. And that was a multi-generational family epic. We’ve read a lot of great books in that book club.
Greenberg: I don’t read any fiction. What do I read? I mainly read non-fiction. I love true crime, biographies, and autobiographies. Right now I’m reading a book called Man-Eater about the history of American cannibalism by Harold Schechter, who’s a true crime writer. So that’s the kind of stuff I like. I guess, my main theme is, if it’s not self-help, I just love reading true stories about very extreme people. Whether they’re celebrities, or murderers, or people who get up super early.
For more information about comedian Jolenta Greenberg and her skeptical friend Kristen Meinzer, or their hilarious podcast, By the Book, follow the link: https://www.bythebook.panoply.fm/.