I was thinking about self-help books last weekend.
I’ve long been interested in them, both as a buyer and a prospective publisher.
Self-help books have given me more disappointment than any other category of book – they often turn all flimsy as you read them, falling apart into platitudes by the end – and I wonder if my experience is common…
Have any of our readers here ever bought them? Were they any use? One difficulty seems to be pinning down what exactly self-help books are for. For example, should they offer practical, specific advice, or just enough to encourage you to take a step back and consider the big picture?
My thoughts were influenced by some of my recent reading. I’ve been re-reading books by an ex-colleague, Paul Arden, with whom I worked at Saatchi & Saatchi when I was starting out.
Paul Arden takes a minimalist, aesthetic approach. So his books seem to be more about taking a step back, looking at the big picture. But in fact they are far more practical than many which are stuffed full of lists and exercises.
And although they are pretty books, with brilliant layouts and illustrations, they aren’t as cool and detached as the books of another best-selling self-helper, Alain de Botton, say, who never seems to commit to an idea, or stoop to the merely personal.
A review of de Botton’s latest book and publishing venture appeared in last Saturday’s Los Angeles Review of Books.
The reviewer, Lisa Levy, is damning about de Botton:
there is something ersatz, if not quite fraudulent, about de Botton’s entire intellectual enterprise: he often seems like a showy grad student who shows up to seminar having done just enough of the reading to participate by jumping on other people’s comments, but who never makes an original observation of his own.
De Botton’s latest production, (the peculiarly titled) How to Think More about Sex, is dissed with a casual if accurate-sounding swipe:
This might in fact be the most boring book ever written about sex.
And the work of his colleagues at the School of Life doesn’t come off any lighter:
The School of Life books by de Botton’s epigones are also pretty dreadful,
Ms Levy begins, before proceeding to demolish two of the books and extend lukewarm praise to a third.
All in all, Ms Levy’s piece is likely to have made hellish reading for de Botton and his chums. But I do wonder a bit whether she might not be wrong.
Because I am still far from clear what drives so many people to buy such books, which Ms Levy reckons are: securely aimed at the insecure middlebrow reader, the kind of person who knows that Proust can change her life but maybe would rather read about how Proust can change her life than slog through seven life-changing volumes.
Is she right?
Or is she just being wittily venomous and patronising?
Maybe she’s all three. But is there no room for books which skate over life’s profundities? Might such superficial frivolities not provoke more thought than authoritative, deeply profound, scholarly works?
I’m really not sure. So I’d be delighted to hear anybody’s thoughts.