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Self-Help Books: I

how to win friendsI was thinking abowho moved my cheeseut 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 – charlie sheen winningand 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

Paul Arden

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.

Lisa Levy

Lisa Levy

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.

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4 Comments on Self-Help Books: I

  1. I LOVE self-help books! The problem is a lot of them are quite wishy washy and use big brush strokes. And some of them are a bit too spiritual for my liking. I like the “life hack” type ones. There’s a great one called ” 59 Seconds: Think a little, change a lot” by Prof. Richard Wiseman.
    I don’t really like the American Style ones like the ones featured in your pictures- find those a bit beligerent. But if you have a specific problem or want to learn something specific or improve something specific, they’re great. Reading one called Mindfulness for Dummies at the moment which is great.

  2. If you’re starving for advice you eat whatever is available. To come upon greening thoughts that inspire is a matter of aptitude. .

  3. i shall check out wiseman’s 59 seconds, i heard that was good before…

    the american ones in my pix are a mixed bag,

    “make friends and influence people” is 80 years old and the great granddaddy of the genre.

    “who stole my cheese” is a Kooky, Patronising Parable about changing cheese, and how if (say) you are about to be sacked, this is actually good because someone is always moving the cheese so you might as well move too….

    the charlie sheen “winning” one is a pisstake. i think it is a video on youtube where he keeps saying how he is winning – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pipTwjwrQYQ

    “greening thoughts that inspire” is good, and i do agree that it will depend on one’s taste, or mental fertiliser…

  4. Can’t stand the things. Yes, the irony is not lost! 🙂
    The only one I ever really liked was Bryon Katie’s…

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