The Necessity of Self-Help Lit

The Necessity of Self-Help Lit

Joseph Davis takes a unique stand against the contempt dished out by his fellow journalists and intellectuals towards self-help books and journals. Granted, there are a lot of self-help books that are peddled by “snakeoil salesmen,” as some of Davis’ colleagues demonstrate. Yet, there is a deeper lesson to be learned by the long-standing use and wide range of books and articles that have our attention turned to them over and over again.

From Davis’ article in the Hedgehog Review:

“Because “self-help” is such a loose genre, generalizations about it are bound to be overly broad. It encompasses many different types of books dealing with spirituality, work, personal relationships, health, and what Dwight Macdonald once called “howtoism.” Self-helpery does not speak with a single voice. As folklorist Sandra Dolby shows, for instance, in her 2005 study Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them, the authors of such works draw on any one of at least four different concepts of the self: the detached self, as in books influenced by Eastern philosophy; the wounded self, which is common in books of popular psychology; the social self, which is often encountered in books on work in the corporate world, with some emphasis on “giving back”; and the obligated self, presupposed in books about spiritual growth and enrichment that tend to emphasize an individual religious duty to seek self-improvement. While the entire genre cannot be reduced to endless variations on the theme of Robert Ringer’s 1977 bestseller Looking Out for #1, it nevertheless conveys a broad common message that runs something like this: Life is a reflexive project, self-defined (and redefined) according to values and courses of action freely chosen, and divested as much as possible from the determining influence of family, cultural conditioning, and old habits of thought.

On the whole, then, the self-help message comes close to encouraging the project of radical self-creation that its critics find so objectionable. But in what sense is this project new or neoliberal or, for that matter, unique to self-help books? Isn’t this the “masterless” or “sovereign” self so commonly encouraged by thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? How is self-help different from the creative self-making that was Rousseau’s answer to the question “Who am I?”—the same Rousseau who, in his Confessions, identified the succession of his own feelings as the “one faithful guide on which I can depend”? Are the autonomy claims for the self in self-help stronger than the self-defining and reality-creating power accorded the imagination in the writings of Romantics such as William Wordsworth and Ralph Waldo Emerson? Although more hardheaded, John Stuart Mill provided the classic modern definition of freedom: “pursuing our own good in our own way,” so long as it does not deprive or interfere with the liberty of others. Individuality, for Mill, was exercised to the degree that a person’s “desires and impulses” and “plan of life” were self-chosen and self-cultivated independent of the “despotism of custom.” If the sovereign self of self-help books is an old ideal, is there anything actually new in them? That they are so widely and continuously read, and found helpful, suggests that more is on offer than rehashed self-talk.”

A comedian I can’t recall, otherwise I would give credit here, once said, “If it was really “self-help,” would there be a section for it in the bookstore?” This attitude towards the self-help literature exists beyond intellectuals and journalists. As Davis explains, however, there’s more going on beneath the surface, especially as the common institutions that shaped who we become (family, faith, community, custom and tradition) have slowly vanished. Hundreds of years ago, you were born, maried, lived your life and died within a 20 mile radius. The industrial revolution, 747 jetliner and information age changed all of that. Now, your day-to-day life requires a whole lot more adaptation to changes and constantly-moving standards, such that your individual decisions matter a whole lot more than they did when your father, grandfather, brothers and every single uncle lived within 5 miles of your home.

The world has changed and so too have our methods of dealing with it. Simply because journalists and intellectual elites see the self-help literature as “beneath them” doesn’t mean it hasn’t become the bedrock by which millions of people make sense of their lives in a rapidly shifting environment that requires them to make a lot of decisions each day. So, the next time your family or friends roll their eyes at the sight of your next “self-help” book, just shrug it off and go about your business. Chances are, there’s something in that book that can not only help you, but them as well.

Worked at Burleson Orthodontics. Attended University of Missouri–Kansas City. Lives in Kansas City, Missouri.

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