In Defense of Self-Help Books
I will come clean. At my grimmest moments I would turn again and again to books which helped change my perspective and get “another way of thinking about life” although they might not be the ones I put on my bookshelves alongside high-brow economic texts or prize-winning novels. But hidden under my bed, as though too risqué, are the books I find most medicinal during the long dark tea time of the soul. They include The Grief Recovery Handbook by John. W. James and Russell Friedman, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay. Lately I have also found The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels very helpful. “The motivation book that everyone in Hollywood is obsessed with,” as Vanity Fair described it, niftily avoiding the S and the H words.
I’m not the only one who has a secret self-help book stash.
You don’t get anyone more intellectual than the flat-out genius David Foster Wallace, After his death The Awl’s Maria Bustillos went through Foster Wallace’s book archive and said she was surprised at the number of popular self-help books in the collection and the care and attention with which he read and re-read them. “I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace’s library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully.”
I would add, however, that self-help books are entirely defensible even without the implied endorsement of the uber-profound Wallace. What’s wrong with people trying to help themselves?
Of course, there’s a political dimension to all of this:
People on the right, politically, often view those who struggle as weak, and (often) immoral and a threat to the established order. They are also often more inclined more toward punishment than help. (Cognitive linguist George Lakoff writes on all this.) They often therefore deprecate their own or others’ need for help, and exaggerate the virtue and effectiveness of simplistic Calvinist-style repression and coercion as solutions to even life’s complex and subtle problems. (E.g., “Just get on with it!” and “Straighten up and fly right!”)
People on the left often believe that focusing on the self is a self-involved distraction from more useful work in improving society. Or, they may feel it’s misguided in the face of systemic societal discrimination or other oppression. This is undoubtedly true of some self-help approaches, but as you and the smart people you cited obviously know, there’s no reason one can’t work simultaneously on helping oneself and bettering society.
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