At some point, instructional self-help books came to dominate the reading lists of middle-aged housewives. They also creeped into the best sellers lists of the New York Times and (too a much lesser degree) Amazon’s best sellers. One SMBC comic shows a cynical version of the future where you can no longer find Shakespeare in a bookstore, but you can find Unleash Your Inner Shakespeare. Family Guy has an episode where the family dog cashes in on the self-help book market by writing a book that features 50 blank pages (about a third of its length) for writing down your dreams. I’ve received my fair share of them as gifts from well-meaning but ultimately shallow people. Thanks to my constant attempts to please said gift givers, I know the 13 Habits of Effective Teenagers, Pastors, Writers, Adults, College Students, so on and so forth. Of course, a book titled “Be Responsible” with nothing on the inside probably would have been sufficient.
Self-help books tend to be self-indulgent and self-involved. Count the number of books that teach people to say “no” compared to those that teach people to give.
This morning I read a review of Eat, Pray, Love that points out that the author was paid to take a journey of self-discovery. The only self-discovery one can do on a paid journey is “how far would I go for a buck?” Another book The Secret teaches readers that specific positive thoughts influence the universe. Just think about having $10,000 and soon you will! I know an awful lot of rich pessimists and an awful lot of poor optimists. (I prefer spending my time with the latter.)
Combine self-help with some pseudo-Christian babble and you’ve got a real growing problem. In bookstores these books are called “Inspirational.” I have a sad note for the world: inspiration can’t be purchased.
Perhaps the rise of self-help books is both a symptom and cause of a larger problem. Our society is now so mired in ourselves that we seek to buy encouragement. People don’t give it away freely anymore. Some people don’t have a best friend that pushes you to be better in their lives. Most people have friends that drag them to the lowest denominator rather than building each other up. Self-help books thrive to fill the need people have for encouragement, but encourage those same people to become more self-involved — keeping them from replacing a bad book in someone else’s life.