Help Your Self

I always found it frustrating that self-help books are often lumped in with psychology books at the bookstore. Their mingling on the shelves seemed to do at least one of them a disservice.

Even given my bias, I’ve always been mildly fascinated with self-help as a genre. In The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature (Columbia University Press, 2020), Beth Blum takes Kenneth Burke’s designation of literature as “equipment for living” much further. She searches novels for the answers to what ails.

Of How-To-titled books like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster, 1936) and Charles Yu‘s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (Pantheon, 2010), Blum writes,

“…advice strives to compensate for the shortsightedness of the present. And with its heady second-person collapse of reader, narrator, and character, the how-to fiction represents the counterfactual space where one’s mature and naïve selves can converse” (p. 232).

Citing an unpublished review from 1939 titled “Dale Carnegie: America’s Machiavelli,” her account of Marshall McLuhan‘s taking issue with Carnegie’s book is especially fun. Mere flattery or a “Way of Life,” McLuhan wasn’t with it.

Blum goes on to cover self-help advice in the work of such literary ghosts as Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Edith Wharton, Virgina Woolf, and Samuel Beckett, as well as modern music moguls like 50 Cent and DJ Khaled, among many others.

My other favorite of these meta-self-help books is Promise Land: My Journey through America’s Self-Help Culture by Jessica Lamb-Shapiro (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Her insights into the genre are unique. During Lamb-Shapiro’s second year here, her mother died. Her father wrote self-help books for decades. The latter was never forthcoming about the former. The list of things she endured while writing this book (e.g., walking on hot coals, talking to over thirty aspiring self-help writers, helping make a vision board, selling mental health products at an Asperger’s convention, watching suicide prevention videos online, eating breakfast with over a hundred grieving children, facing her fear of flying, etc.) probably don’t compare to that. Something that could probably be said for all of us, hence the tenacity of self-help as an industry.

“It’s nearly impossible to live in the world and escape self-help,” writes Lamb-Shapiro. “We are surrounded all the time by its bastard derivatives.” Beth Blum agrees, “self-help is everywhere.” From the cult of self-care to the mindfulness movement, from hang-in-there posters to keep-blank-and-carry-on memes, daily affirmations can be as useful as they can dangerous.