Book Review: One Simple Idea

Mitch Horowitz begins his history of the positive-thinking movement with memoir, sharing a humble account of how he became interested in the topic. He ends his book with a challenge to others to test the principles. Between those brackets, he sets out a feast for those of us who have been starved for substance when it comes to the idea that “thoughts are causative.”

I became interested in hypnosis when I was very young — a sophomore or junior in high school — and I’ve always been a science-loving nerd. Most popular books on how ideation affects reality do not speak to me. They seem superficial, sloppy, hyperbolic, poorly edited, or all of the above.

Enter One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life. It makes me want to weep with gratitude.

I’ve never considered positive thinking as a theology or philosophy. I’ve always thought of it as a function of neuroscience and physics. Horowitz introduced me to a lineage of positive thinkers for whom positive thinking (or New Thought) was an aspect of spirituality. Their names were new to me, and Horowitz paints each one as a full-blooded, vibrant human being, with dreams, families, careers, obstacles, and victories (not always in that order).

Horowitz unfolds a fascinating history, describing vigorous personal correspondences, bitter feuds, secretive scandals, astonishing creativity, unrepentant plagiarism, and not so much an evolution of ideas as a dialog across time and geography.

Many of the people who populate these stories could easily support whole books of their own (and I hope they do). Helen Wilmans, for example, who said she wanted to start her own newspaper and was laughed at… before becoming a phenomenally successful writer, speaker, and publisher. I wish I could have met her. 

One Simple Idea isn’t just a series of biographical vignettes. Horowitz simultaneously traces how the actions of these individuals and their followers imprinted upon American culture to affect business, politics, and religion, in addition to personal conduct. As such, it confronts “the positive-thinking movement’s most serious and lingering dilemma: What are the ethics and moral credibility of a movement that considers the outer world nothing more than a reflection of an individual’s private outlook?”

Although one final chapter tackles these questions in depth, Horowitz taps this note throughout the book. This is one reason I’m loving so hard on One Simple Idea. There are no easy answers. Horowitz works hard to reach them. In doing so, he snatches the topic back from the hands of feel-good psychobabblers who bang out a version of philosophical Chopsticks in a concert hall begging for Mozart. Not to say Horowitz is Mozart, but he knows the difference between simple and easy. One Simple Idea is rigorous in questioning and reporting, and it cites its sources like a serious work of nonfiction, which I love so much that I want to kiss the damn thing, but that would leave lipstick on its pages.

The final reason this book makes me want to weep with gratitude is its language. It is rich, clear, scholarly, and nuanced. Horowitz has a deep respect and affection for his subject matter, and even as he writes with authority, there is an underlying humility and vulnerability. He does not pander or condescend. He challenges rather than criticizes, without being snarky or shaming.

And he appears to be incredibly prolific, so I look forward to reading many more of his books.