Self-help books are all the rage. They are the 21st century equivalent of the cookbook, at least in terms of their ubiquity in bookstores, physical and virtual. I was browsing through the new nonfiction releases on Audible a few days ago, and half the books listed could reasonably categorized as self-help books.
I find the category redundant. Reading is its own self-help. Reading a book can teach us something. It can also entertain us. Both help us in different ways. But they do help. So why, then, an entire category of books dedicated to self-help when reading is its own reward?
Self-help is one of those marketing phrases that masks intention. That intention is sell a lot of books with a magic bullet solution to some life problem. Marketing something as a magic bullet, however, is risky because the magic in magic solutions tends to be illusion.
I have read some self-help books over the years. I’ve read David Allen’s Getting Things Done twice, for instance. The best, and most effective self-help book I ever read has been lost to the mists of time. It was a small, paperback book, that I picked up between my sophomore and junior year in college. The book was on how to take more effective notes in class. It was an eye-opener for me. The practical ideas it offered reshaped the way I approached my classes. My grade improved dramatically after reading the book. I wish I still had it. I’d praise it to the stars and recommend it loudly to everyone.
Around the same time—early 1993ish—I also read Anthony Robbins Awaken the Giant Within. It was an interesting read, but when I finished it, I was right back where I started. I had no idea how the book was supposed to help me.
The book on note-taking was the exception to the rule for me when it comes to self-help books. My experience with them has been closer to what I experienced with Anthony Robbins book. The lure of self-help book is the same as the lure of the lottery. We think that by reading one book (or buying one lottery ticket) we will change our lives. That is rarely the case.
The other problem I have with traditional self-help books is that they are often cast as “you should” rather than “here is how I did it.” Long-time readers of this blog will note that when I do write “how-to” posts (the blogging equivalent of self-help) I am careful to avoid phrase like “you should…” Instead, I’ll say “Here is how I made this thing work for me.” That is important because everyone is different. The guidance given by the he author of a self-help book might have worked very well for that author—they are giving an honest accounting. But that doesn’t mean it will work for the masses.
I prefer a more practical kind of self-help book. I find reading biographies to be of enormous help. I read biographies looking for small practical ways I can improve myself, based on what has worked for those that I read about. Reading, for instance, about how Isaac Asimov became a writer helped me become a professional writer. The lessons I gleaned from his autobiographies gave me practical tools that have served me well. I’ve taken similar lessons from biographies of Thomas Jefferson, Dwight Eisenhower, and many others.
Most of the book I read are self-help. Reading a collection of Andy Rooney essays teaches me how to write an essay. Reading a Simon Winchester book teaches me something about geography that I might not have known. For me, self-help books are everywhere, and don’t require a special label to be identified as such.