The Troy Patterson Stop Smoking Plan

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 4 2012 12:05 AM

The Kickers

You, too, can stop smoking, with this guide to stop-smoking guides!

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How to Stop Smoking by Herbert Brean.
How to Stop Smoking by Herbert Brean.

Pocket Books, 1979. Photo by Juliana Jimenez for Slate.

After four chapters of patter, Brean sets out the preliminaries. He asks you—as authors in this genre always do—to make a list of the things you don’t like about smoking and hold onto it for later. (Yours starts: “$, smell, stigma …”) He tells you—anticipating a theme of Carr’s—to abandon the idea of will power, for “any psychologist will tell you there is no such thing.” He wants you for now just to think about quitting: “If you are not smoking right at this very minute, maybe it would be a good idea to take out a cigarette or pipe and light them up. Analyze what you do and what you taste and smell.” And you say, OK, no problem. This is a valuable exercise—the opposite of connoisseurship. The full acridity of the gas starts fumigating your buggy consciousness.

Having warmed you up, Brean then forms some ideas about habits, leaning heavily on the work of William James. His first suggestion is that you launch your new life with maximum momentum by telling everybody what you’re doing: “When you are seriously tempted to smoke, the thought of all the derisive laughter you’ll get for giving in may well carry you over the crisis.” Decide to write an article on the topic for a prominent online magazine.

Step 5: Go to your local independent bookstore. Buy one copy each of two things you already own. The first is the summer 2012 issue of Bookforum; your byline is among those on the cover, and you are vain. The piece inside is about Martin Amis and his novels Lionel Asbo and Money. By coincidence, John Self, the irrepressibly repugnant narrator of the latter, delivers one of fiction’s funnier lines on the habit—“Unless I specifically inform you otherwise, I’m always smoking another cigarette”—but Money is subtitled A Suicide Note, and this Stop-Smoking Plan is very consciously the antithesis of that.


No, the relevant material is in Amis’ later The Information and concerns the doomed Richard Tull and his “bond with cigarettes—this living relationship with death”:

Paradoxically, he no longer wanted to give up smoking: what he wanted to do was take up smoking. Not so much to fill the little gaps between cigarettes with cigarettes (there wouldn’t be time, anyway) or to smoke two cigarettes at once. It was more that he felt the desire to smoke a cigarette even when he was smoking a cigarette. The need was and wasn’t being met.

You connect this bit of The Information with Carr’s explanation of why burning his hand was not quite as stupid as it may seem: “Eventually the cigarette ceases to relieve the withdrawal pangs, and even when you are smoking the cigarette there is still something missing.” This becomes, at a certain point in everyone’s smoking career, a metaphysical truism, such that even he who is not a total fiend will admire a line of Klein’s about how smoking “seems to run desire backward—as if the fulfillment were even more the desire than the desire it fulfills.”

The second second copy of something you buy is the 2001 translation of Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience, a book also known as Confessions of Zeno. The novel, published in 1923, proceeds as if it were the self-analytic memoir of a serial failed quitter. Extract a minor motto from its dryly funny first chapter: “I believe the taste of a cigarette is more intense when it’s your last. … The last one gains flavor from the feeling of victory over oneself and the hope of an imminent future of strength and health.”


The American Cancer Society's "Freshstart:" 21 Days to Stop Smoking.
The American Cancer Society's "Freshstart:" 21 Days to Stop Smoking, by Dee Burton, Ph.D.

Pocket, 1986. Photo by Juliana Jimenez for Slate.

Step 6: Rummage around your apartment until you turn up your copy of The American Cancer Society’s “Freshstart:” 21 Days To Stop Smoking. It was handed down to you, a dozen years ago, by an old friend with a husk of Marlboro Reds in her voice, and you’ve been through it before, so you get to review the evidence of failure past: the brisk, can-do checkmarks and inquisitive squiggles of your old marginalia.

21 Days, published in 1986 and credited to Dee Burton, Ph.D., lacks the philosophical bent of Bream and Carr, but it’s packed with pragmatic pointers and soothing suggestions. On Quit Day, it says, drink a lot of water (for the fine satisfaction of the bloating) and carry a box of cinnamon sticks (for your lonely pie hole). The most essential instruction the book gives is to draft a one-sentence statement of commitment stating “as strongly and personally as possible what stopping smoking means to you.”