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January 04, 2008

Help Me

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Lifehacker invites visitors to name their favorite self-help books. Lots of interesting and funny contributions.

Me, I've long wanted to write a blog posting in which I'd argue that the self-help genre is 1) unfairly scorned, and 2) an important American literary genre. Funny I haven't done so yet. Maybe one day I'll run across a self-help book that will give me the motivation I need to actually write this posting ...



posted by Michael at January 4, 2008


Walk through any self-help section at the bookstore, browse the titles, and you'll get a pretty good sense of what kind of evo-bio-driven problems people face in this our modern age. Or, more accurately, browse the titles that AREN'T there.

Too much money sitting around doing nothing? Unable to spend your way out of unwanted wealth? Here's a revolutionary 5-step plan to empty out your bank account and get those credit card balances where they should be--sky high!

Too much passion in your marriage? Too much sweat and sex? Husband still pestering you for you-know-what, even though it's been twenty years since the honeymoon? Here's a revolutionary 7-step plan to cool his ardour, and give you some peace of mind (and body!). Get more sleep, keep your clothes on, and most of all, feel less desirable with age!

Hard to gain weight? Muscles still annoyingly firm? Butt as taut as it was in those thankfully disappeared days of your youth? Here's an all-new no-exercise plan GUARANTEED to turn you into the softest, droopiest bag of flesh around! Be the envy of couch potatoes everywhere as your body deteriorates visibly EVERY DAY you put this program into effect!


Posted by: PatrickH on January 4, 2008 2:08 PM

Perhaps this is my cue to get off my duff and actually write mine :-)

Posted by: communicatrix on January 4, 2008 5:15 PM

Humor aside, the best-self-help books are good biographies. All my life I have profited from excellent biographies of people I admire. Because I wished to be a book editor, I probably was helped most by Scott Berg's award-winning biography of Maxwell Perkins, the genius at Scribners who nurtured Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, and a dozen other magnificent authors. Anyone who truly wishes to improve his or her life ought to forget the self-help shelves and read biographies of admired people.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on January 4, 2008 8:11 PM

I'd be very interested in reading your post about that. While staying at a friend's lake house last summer, I took off the shelf a very old copy of Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive Thinking. Just flipped through it briefly -- strange little book. It got me to thinking about the self-help book's place in American history, and if you would finish that thinking for me and shape it into something coherent and insightful, I'd be much obliged.


Posted by: JMW on January 4, 2008 9:38 PM

Hey, Richard S. Wheeler--have you been reading my files? :-)

Posted by: communicatrix on January 4, 2008 9:41 PM

Give Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book" a try.

Posted by: sN on January 5, 2008 12:16 AM

Beckham's Books in New Orleans housed these books on a shelf labeled "Self-Help and Greed."

Posted by: not securely anchored on January 5, 2008 8:47 AM

Please, gentlemen! Get serious...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on January 5, 2008 9:56 AM

The Prince.

Posted by: agnostic on January 5, 2008 10:57 AM

A self-help book I've read many times, and surely one of the greatest of them all, is Walden.

Posted by: Lester Hunt on January 5, 2008 11:47 AM

It's interesting, isn't it? It seems to be normal that people want some decent advice and insight and examples. And why not? It isn't as though how-to-lead-a-better-life? is a bad question. So (awful as many of the books are) sneering at self-help per se strikes me as a little ... I dunno, inhuman or something.

And I'm happy to admit that I've picked up a few helpful tips from a few of the self-help books, and that I've enjoyed leafing through numbers of them. Might pick up a good tip -- who knows?

For another thing, the usual self-help book is full of stories and people -- "case histories," that kind of thing. And they're often fascinating -- great raw material for fiction if nothing else. But they also often reflect people's lives as they actually lead 'em, in a "Cops" or reality-TV kind of way.

Besides, people used to look to great literature and religion for insight and advice and instruction. Like I say, can anyone say there's automatically something wrong with that? Richard Wheeler could tell us more, but I think that one of the enduring appeals of the Western as a genre is its moral-lesson, "what is the honorable thing to do?" side. Which is to be respected!

Plus America has always been a real nation for self-starters and self-improvement -- it makes sense that self-help as a genre would flourish here. If we say "Wow those Romans really had a knack for engineering!" why can't we say "Wow those Americans really put a lot of their energies into self-help books!" It's one of our important forms of cultural expression.

Hey, another example: advice columns. People like Emily Post, Dear Abby, and Dan Savage have been and continue to be real cultural presences, as well as popular-culture performers in their own right.

Have y'all heard of Samuel Smiles? He wrote The Book. A major event in cultural history by any measure.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 5, 2008 12:53 PM


Yes, fiction can be transformative. The most transforming fiction is not the preachy variety, but that which displays admirable behavior and attitude and belief, which can affect a reader deeply and change the reader forever. The same is true of films. The most transformative film in my life was Casablanca, in which the hero, Rick Blaine, sacrifices the love of his life to do what is right and good. The film has little effect on younger people, who have different values, but it was a powerful source of idealism for my generation.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on January 5, 2008 3:24 PM

It's interesting to see how embarrassed commentators are to mention any of the mainstream contemporary self help books - but instead joke about literary classics being good for self help.

I have enjoyed a lot of 'New Age' type self help books - but I don't go around recommending them to other people. This _may_ be because I too am embarrassed to admit I enjoy them - but I think the better reason is that I recognize that what suits me may not, indeed probably will not, suit many other people.

This is why there are so many self help books continually being written and read - what 'works' for each individual is very idiosyncratic.

Posted by: Bruce G Charlton on January 5, 2008 4:23 PM

"Have y'all heard of Samuel Smiles?" Not until you mentioned him. He seems like an interesting character and maybe a good place to start the history of self-help. Note that he is a very near-coeval of Thoreau, my nominee for the father of them all (Smiles was born about five years earlier).

Posted by: Lester Hunt on January 5, 2008 5:01 PM

Some years back, I noted with amusement that the Union Square Barnes & Noble had the book How We Die in the self-improvement category.

Posted by: Peter on January 5, 2008 9:06 PM

My favorite self-help book is The Rosy Crucifixion, a trilogy by Henry Miller.

I remember sitting in my flat in the Western Addition in San Francisco, reading Nexus, Sexus and Plexus as if those books were a manual for how to get on with my life.

God help me, I really did this. After absorbing the entire sordid tale, I moved to the very neighborhood in Brooklyn where Henry grew up.

In retrospect, I can't enumerate Henry's self help program, although it involved a hell of a lot of sex. I decided that it was best to try to emulate the master.

What I do remember most vividly, was being swept away by the fierce and incredibly sexy women in his life. I prayed and prayed that they would somehow fall into my life. Miraculously, Myrna appeared. My prayers were answered.

Years later, Myrna and I made a pilgrimage to Big Sur to visit Miller's library and see his watercolors. You might be surprised to know that Miller was viewed as a guru by many of his readers. He was unhappy in this role, and regarded it as about equal to eating shit.

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on January 6, 2008 9:31 AM

I second the nomination of Walker Percy's "Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book."

Posted by: Judith Sears on January 6, 2008 11:41 AM

Adolphe Tanquerey, The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology.

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Three Ages of the Interior Life.

Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive.

Frank Bettger, How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling.

Posted by: Lexington Green on January 6, 2008 11:50 AM

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