A self-help book is one that is written with the intention to instruct its readers on solving personal problems. If you can still find a local bookstore, there is a good chance that a shelf or wall is devoted to books of this genre.
These books take their name from a book actually titled Self-Help. It was a 1859 best-seller by Samuel Smiles. That name and author is for real. Samuel Smiles (1812 – 1904), was a Scottish author and government reformer, and his book promoted thrift and claimed that poverty was caused largely by irresponsible habits. The book has been called “the bible of mid-Victorian liberalism” and made him quite a celebrity.
Well before that, a book of manners published in 1558 suggests: ‘It is also an unpleasant habit to lift another person’s wine or his food to your nose and smell it’.” I agree.
But guides to how to live your life are even older. It could be argued that the ancient Egyptian “Codes” of conduct and the Bible were self-help or at least partially intended for self-improvement.
I have very strong memories of Charles Atlas who ran ads in almost every comic book I read as a kid. As a weakling 12-year-old reading a Superman comic, the idea of using “dynamic tension” to become really strong and avoid bullies “kicking sand in your face” was very appealing. Charles Atlas was a bodybuilder who came up with a system of physical exercise back in the 1920s, but the ads were running strong in the 1960s. (“Dynamic Tension” is a registered trademark of Charles Atlas, Ltd and their website still looks a lot like those ads from almost a 100 years ago.)
The Charles Atlas method was all about putting muscle against muscle. No weights or equipment needed. That was very appealing to a kid with only a weekly allowance. We even did a variation of this in our school gym classes that the teachers called “isometrics.” I recall a gym teacher telling us, “Look at lions and tigers. They don’t use any equipment. they stretch and push muscle against muscle.” it made sense to me.
Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People was probably the first book I ever encountered on a bookshelf that was clearly “self-help.” It is one of the first best-selling self-help books and was first published in 1936. It is also still around. (Self-help books have legs!) It has sold over 30 million copies worldwide. It even made Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential books.
Like Charles Atlas, Carnegie’s self-help promises sound really tempting: make people like you; win people to your way of thinking; change people without arousing resentment.
One topic that has perennial appeal is love. In the Middle Ages, there were “Conduir-amour” – guides in love matters – published. In classical Rome, Cicero’s On Friendship and On Duties and Ovid’s Art of Love even produced a sequel – Remedy of Love. They are the forerunners of the many volumes published about where to go to meet mates (most of them are intended for male readers), how to start a conversation, keep them interested, and ultimately how to have the best sex.
I think there is probably some good advice in all these self-help books. But I, like most of you, am lazy. We want really fast and easy ways to solve our problems. 10-Minute Mindfulness: 71 Habits for Living in the Present Moment sure sounds easier than easier than going away for a Zen retreat weekend and sitting uncomfortably for hours. Remember those 1-minute manager books? Yeah, I’ve got a minute. Change my life.
Sometimes we need help but part of the help we need is to be motivated to read a book that will help us.
And so, as I have posted a few times about podcasts I currently enjoy, I must recommend one for all of us lazy types that need help. It is By the Book, a self-help book podcast in which the hosts – comedian Jolenta Greenberg and serious skeptic Kristen Meinzer – test out self-help books for us.
In each episode, they live by the rules of a different self-help book for two weeks and report back on what worked and what didn’t. You can grab the nuggets of wisdom from each book without having to buy it or read it.
Of course, there is the possibility that a book might actually be life-changing.
I first knew of Kristen by going on many Movie Date[s] with her. She was the co-host of the much-missed Movie Date podcast where Rafer Guzman weekly pretended that he was on the date with Kristen. (She has since married and so our movie dates ended.) But now I have By the Book, which just finished its first season, and it is funny, irreverent, thoughtful, highly personal and a great listen. And it is free. You can’t lose. Money-back guarantee.
The show also has a nice community on Facebook where I seem to be one of the few (perhaps the only) male participant. What’s up with that? Are guys not even able to admit to needing help?
I got to thinking that maybe the ladies should test out a self-help book for guys (their husbands show up in the podcasts, so they might help). I did a search on self-help books for men about love and the search results were frightening – almost all books for women about men. They ranged from how to get a guy – The Power of the Pussy: Get What You Want From Men: Love, Respect, Commitment and More! through How to Get & Keep The Man of Your Dreams: by Staying True to Your Core Self – all the way to the land of F*CK Him! – Nice Girls Always Finish Single – “A guide for sassy women who want to get back in control of their love life” (The Truth about his weird behavior, … of commitment and sudden loss of interest). Long titles are clearly key to self-help success.
I did not buy any of those titles for my wife. Instead, maybe I will read 100 Ways to Love Your Wife: A Life-long Journey of Learning to Love Each Other. It was written by a guy, but it probably would have been better if it was written by a woman. As a pre-teen, I used to read my sister’s copies of Seventeen, Teen, Cosmopolitan et al because I figured those articles on “5 Ways to Get That Guy” would give me tips on how to get a girl or at least warn me about what they were plotting.
I didn’t buy the 100 Ways book. Maybe Kristen and Jolenta will read it and pick out 7 ways that are really good and I can use them for the week before our anniversary.
Want to browse the many opportunities you have for helping improve yourself? Try this link.