Step 2: Go to Barnes & Noble in search of a copy of The Easy Way To Stop Smoking, which is shelved not in Self-Help but, uncoddlingly, in Addiction. Its author, Allen Carr, ranks as the main man in the smoking-cessation game—posthumously so, having died of lung cancer in 2006 at the age of 72. At this writing, Amazon’s Books > Health, Fitness & Dieting > Recovery > Smoking section lists this 1985 book as its top seller. Other Easy Way editions and spinoffs claim places 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 13, 15, 18, and 20. These include The Easy Way for Women To Stop Smoking, the cover of which reflects the perceived preferences of women in its subtitle (… Without Gaining Weight) and in a numinous lilac design that calls to mind the retail packaging of Vagisil.
Before building an empire of Easyway clinics, Carr was an accountant. Indeed, the smoking-cessation book is frequently the offering of non-experts. I mean, they are expert at hacking butts, but they tend not to be doctors or anything. In narrative terms, these books represent a subset of confessional literature, with its stories of amazing grace; testimony of profligacy establishes the authority of the voice offering salvation. Carr was a five-pack-a-day man: “I once burnt the back of my hand trying to put a cigarette in my mouth when there was already one there.”
So buy the book at Barnes & Noble and start in on it on the subway home. Perhaps you can skip the introduction. Another feature of this genre—not just a trope but a sine qua non—finds authors likening the tube of a cigarette to the bars of a jail cell. The writers hook the would-be quitters with figurative talk of escape and liberation. Carr maybe overreaches in comparing the thrill of extinguishing his last smoke to the relief of Nelson Mandela upon leaving prison. Maybe.
The first chapter tells you to pay attention. The second tells you not to attempt to quit before you have reached the finale. The fifth says that smoking presents a greater danger to the brain than to the lungs: “The worst aspect … is the warping of the mind. You search for any plausible excuse to go on smoking.” Once you get home, misplace the book for a while.
Step 3: Go to the Strand. Buy a book you already own—Richard Klein's Cigarettes Are Sublime. (Your old copy—a gift from one of the girls next door senior year, the same “friend” who another time gave you a carton of duty-free Dunhill Reds—has been in storage recently because your den has become a nursery.) It was published in 1993 by, very perfectly, the university press at Duke: A school endowed by tobacco fortune sponsored an excellent silk-cut riff on the cultural logic of coffin nails. Its title toys with Kant’s idea of “negative pleasure”: “Cigarettes are bad. That is why they are good—not good, not beautiful, but sublime.”
Klein, a scholar of French by trade, sinuously riffs on Sartre and Baudelaire, on Bizet’s Carmen and Rick’s Café, by way of delivering a cultural critique with a practical purpose: “Writing this book in praise of cigarettes was the strategy I devised for stopping smoking, which I have—definitively; it is therefore both an ode and an elegy to cigarettes.”
Linger for a while over the idea of the elegy. Where a conventional smoking-cessation preacher tells the reader he has nothing to lose but his chains, Klein acknowledges that to quit is to experience a loss, and takes his time mourning a dying idea of fun. Klein never directly identifies the cigarette as a femme fatale, but after watching him explicate many a text in which a man compares his smoke to a mistress and test a number of elegant ideas about desire and mortality, you are left with the idea that he has subdued a seductress with the extravagant bouquet of his book.
Step 4: On a Sunday, step out to do some work over a late lunch for one. Realize that you haven't had a cigarette today. You don't really want one, but you don't not want one, and no one whose disapproval you’d abhor is watching.
Or are they? The mind-warping Carr discusses includes the collateral damage of paranoia. You have gotten semi-surreptitious and ashamed and guilty about your habit, and to minimize the risk of running into anyone you might know from the neighborhood sandbox, you go out of your way, privileging side streets, walking a mile in the wrong direction for a Camel.
Take a sudden turn down a block where it seems the coast is clear. Notice a giveaway box of books in front of a townhouse and pluck a good omen from it—a hardcover copy of 1951’s How To Stop Smoking, the first blockbuster smoking-cessation book. The author is Herbert Brean, a mystery novelist and true-crime writer admired by Hitchcock. This was a guy who knew how to tell a story, and he creates a sort of meta-suspense by opening the book with a money-back guarantee: If the buyer doesn’t stop smoking, he’ll get back his $2.95—which, at the time Brean was writing, would buy a whole carton of fairly decent smokes.