Critic, Book World

(G. P. Putnam's)

Two decades ago, only one man understood the transformative power of his parable about industrious mice. Now the world knows.

Sept. 8 marks the 20th anniversary of Spencer Johnson’s “Who Moved My Cheese?,” one of the most unlikely bestsellers in American publishing. Since 1998, when it first appeared in print, this brief self-help title has sold almost 30 million copies, and its sales are still Gouda. Johnson, a physician who turned to writing early in his career, required his American publisher to keep his masterpiece always in hardback — never paperback — so that readers would take it seriously. And they do.

In the world of business books, the “Cheese” stands alone.

Johnson’s big-print fable captured the imagination of a whole generation of managers, but the question of what moved “Who Moved My Cheese?” remains something of a mystery. Its phenomenal success exceeded the expectations of almost everyone involved at the beginning. After all, the title sounded silly, and years had passed since Johnson had co-written “The One Minute Manager” with Kenneth Blanchard. So when early sales of “Who Moved My Cheese?” languished, no one was particularly shocked. One former publishing executive recalls that the book looked all but dead.

But then, several months later, orders started pouring in — not just from bookstores but from businesses, too. Johnson was on the road, delivering motivational and management talks; word of mouth began to spread. Fortune magazine reported that executives at Procter & Gamble, General Electric and Hewlett-Packard were recommending the book. Southwest Airlines ordered copies for all its 27,000 employees.


Author Spencer Johnson (Christian Johnson)

Praised, imitated and satirized, “Who Moved My Cheese?” became a fixture on the bestseller list. Snobs claimed to be lactose intolerant to Johnson’s wisdom, but millions of fans kept recommending the book to others.

Why?

In fewer than 60 pages, Johnson tells the story of “four little characters who ran through a Maze looking for cheese to nourish them and make them happy.” Every day, they find their prize in a corridor called “Cheese Station C.” But then one morning the cheese isn’t there, and it isn’t ever coming back to that spot. The two mice, Sniff and Scurry, immediately head off to find more cheese elsewhere. But the two little people, Hem and Haw, are devastated. “Who moved my Cheese?” Hem hollers.

Their struggles are the essence of Johnson’s moral: Hem continues to whine that he can’t have his whey, but Haw eventually realizes that he’s got to change. If he hopes to survive, he must let go of the past and discover new cheese.

If newspaper publishers, travel agents and switchboard operators ignored that message, it wasn’t for lack of clarity. Johnson’s tale develops with leaden deliberateness, punctuated by full-page slogans printed over wedges of cheese, e.g. “If You Do Not Change, You Can Become Extinct.” Imagine Mister Rogers as a Scientologist who works in HR.

At the very end of the book, after the fable, we find a cheesy story about several old friends who have come to Chicago for a high school reunion. They gather in a hotel lounge and talk about how meaningful they find the story of the missing cheese, which is enough to keep me from ever attending another high school reunion. “Maybe that’s the whole point,” one of the friends says. “Change happens to all of us.”

This is not a particularly fresh observation. Long before Johnson’s harried mice, people referred to modern life as a “rat-race.” In 1900, Henry Adams stood transfixed before an enormous generator at the Paris Exposition and saw a vision of our manic future: “At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived into the year 2000,” he wrote, “would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society.”


The popularity of “Who Moved My Cheese?” led to teen and children’s versions. (G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers)

Johnson is no Adams, but a lot more people are reading “Who Moved My Cheese?” than have ever read “The Education of Henry Adams,” which has everything to do with the elementary manner of Johnson’s presentation. Johnson, who died last year at the age of 78, writes in a style that’s the literary equivalent of plastic-wrapped slices of American cheese. He practiced that tone in the 1970s, when he published a children’s series of “Valuetale” biographies that celebrated, say, the courage of Jackie Robinson or the curiosity of Christopher Columbus. In Johnson’s work, the staples of modern literature — irony, ambiguity, complexity — are noticeable only in their absence, like the holes in a chunk of Swiss cheese.

That’s not a flaw; it’s what allowed Johnson’s fable to age so well.

Adrian Zackheim, the founder and publisher of Portfolio, a business book imprint at Penguin Random House, met Johnson in 1981 and worked with him right up until the time he died. “Spencer had this really absolutely unique talent for telling a story in a way that it stuck to people’s memories,” Zackheim says. “It was just uncanny, and he crossed national boundaries with apparent ease. Consider that ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’ was a huge bestseller . . . in China, where in most parts of China nobody even knows what cheese is exactly.”

But Mitch Horowitz, a historian of alternative spirituality, sees something essentially American in “Who Moved My Cheese?” He calls it “the consummate American self-help book.” “Many of the most popular self-help books in American history either have a religious inflection or are written, however subtly, from a perspective of faith,” Horowitz says. He places Johnson’s book in the ethereal realm of such bestsellers as “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” “The Power of Positive Thinking,” “A Purpose-Driven Life,” “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and even “The Secret.”

“Who Moved My Cheese?” has all the requisite qualities of these other self-help bestsellers: extravagant claims to universal application, great profundity nested in numbing simplicity, catchphrases designed for infinite repetition.

It’s a method that has impressed even the most hardcore academic business professors. John Kotter spent decades teaching at the Harvard Business School and knew Johnson for years. When Johnson showed him an early copy of “Who Moved My Cheese?,” Kotter didn’t think much of it, but he eventually came to appreciate the story’s message.


(Putnam and Portfolio)

“I’m sure there are some people who put Spencer in a category and think very cynically about . . . motivational speakers and these writers of these trashed books that say, ‘Here are the three things that will make you rich or three things that will make you happy.’ But the Spencer that I knew was not a cynical guy. He derived much more personal satisfaction from knowing or hoping, at least, that his works were actually making a difference in people’s lives.”

For Kotter, Johnson’s essential message isn’t about learning to live with constant change but daring to live without crippling fear. The question, he says, that everyone remembers from “Who Moved My Cheese?” is “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?”

“It is very easy to mock,” Kotter admits. “But if you could get him in a reflective mood, Spencer would say something along the lines of, ‘If it helps a million, isn’t that a worthy endeavor?’ ”

Johnson died while editing “Out of the Maze,” a sequel to his most famous book. It will be published in a joint venture between Putnam and Portfolio on Nov. 13. Zackheim says, “It puts you under a spell in the same way that ‘Cheese’ does, and then it reveals an idea set that’s both simple and very challenging.”

Take that, cheese snobs.

Ron Charles writes about books for The Washington Post and hosts TotallyHipVideoBookReview.com.