Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most creative and influential American writers of all time. He wrote 70 short stories, published three volumes of poetry, a full length novel plus numerous essays and letters. He invented the detective story. He has a fair claim to inspiring if not actually inventing science fiction too.
Yet his personal life was a disaster. His parents died before he turned three. He was taken in by a wealthy family but never formally adopted. They eventually disowned him. Poe deliberately got himself court-martialed from the West Point military academy. He married his thirteen-year-old cousin which was an eyebrow-raiser even by the standards of the early 1800’s. She died of tuberculosis at the age of 24. They never had children. Poe was one of the first writers to try to make a living solely by writing. As a result he lived in poverty. He fought constantly, and often publicly, with friends and enemies alike. He drank to excess, maybe even to death. He died in 1849 from mysterious causes. He was just 40 years old.
You might think all this would make Poe an unlikely source of inspiration for a self-help book.
But it’s Poe’s failures and imperfections, and his perseverance in spite of them, that inspired Catherine Baab-Muguira to write Poe for Your Problems: Uncommon Advice from History’s Least Likely Self-Help Guru.
Catherine Baab-Muguira is an author and journalist who lives in Richmond, Virginia. Poe for Your Problems is her first book.
Poe for Your Problems
By Catherine Baab-Muguira
Running Press, Philadelphia, 2021
Poe for Your Problems provides guidance on topics such as launching your career, personal finance, love and sex, death and grief. In each chapter, Baab-Muguira presents details from Poe’s biography and draws lessons that you can apply to your own life. The book is a little patchy. It doesn’t add up to a comprehensive or systematic guide like Ray Dalio’s Principles or Clayton Christensen’s How Will You Measure Your Life. But there are plenty of useful, contrarian nuggets.
For example, Poe wanted to be a poet, but he could never make a living at it. The newspapers and magazines of his day would pay for stories, the more lurid and thrilling the better. So Poe began to write horror stories, eking out a living in the process. As he wrote, he got better at it, eventually producing classics like The Tell-Tale Heart, and The Cask of Amontillado. Baab-Muguira distills Poe’s experience into this succinct advice:
“Poe tip #6: Sell out as soon as possible, and when in doubt, look down-market for opportunity.” [p. 51]
To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, you can’t always do what you want, but you just might find an adjacent field where you can do what you need.
I can’t remember when I first encountered Poe’s work. Probably in high school English class where we studied The Raven. Long ago I bought a copy of The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. I’ve never read the whole thing – it’s about a thousand pages – but I did read quite a few of his stories and poems. So I was immediately tickled by the title of this book.
I was expecting Poe for Your Problems to be totally tongue-in-cheek, a satire of self-help books. And it is somewhat satirical, not to mention dark and delightfully cynical.
Baab-Muguira’s writing is irreverent, sarcastic, profane, and cleverly sprinkled with phrases from Poe’s stories and poems. Yet, in the end, it’s also serious and thought-provoking.
If there’s a common theme running through the book it’s “do it your way!” Poe’s life was marred by tragedy and setbacks — some of them self-inflicted — but he never gave up. No one ever sparked a revolution, or made a dent in the universe, by fitting in, Baab-Muguira seems to be saying. Especially the misfits, the outcasts, and the creatives.
“Only by being horribly misunderstood and maligned may we truly change the world! And yet, we’re raised with the idea that good behavior, professionalism, decorum, and politeness are the ways to get ahead. It’s madness. More than that, it’s impossible. Poe shows us that the best way to stand out is instead to live your own weird-ass, occasionally combative truth.” [pp. 212-213]
Poe for Your Problems will help you say “nevermore” to your troubles with lessons inspired by the life and the after-life of Edgar Allan Poe.
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Thanks to Silver Button Books for recommending this one.