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How reading about self-help can change your life

Can a book make you a better person? The publishing industry certainly seems to think so. Physical and virtual bookshop shelves groan with guides to self-improvement and self-care, which promise to show readers how to be healthier, happier, richer, tidier, smarter, more successful and less racist. But even as the genre metastasizes, it remains stubbornly invisible to the literary establishment. As far as critics, academics and self-styled serious readers are concerned, self-help is everywhere and nowhere.

Into this void comes Beth Blum’s rich and fascinating study The Self-Help Compulsion, an overdue effort by a literary scholar to reframe the relationship between those “ambivalent shelf-fellows” self-help and literature as one of mutual fascination rather than antipathy. Blum makes a compelling case for self-help as an important “shadow genre” for literature – worthy of study in itself and also for what it reveals over time about readers’ habits, desires and values. Traversing a broad historical and geographic terrain, she tracks the evolution of self-help as, first, a distinct genre arising in the West in the late nineteenth century, and secondly as a way of reading, for comfort and self-improvement, that is much older, more widespread and more interesting, in many ways, than the how-to genre itself.

For most readers, the designation “self-help” brings to mind a handful of mega-bestselling titles such as How To Win Friends and Influence People, Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but the genre is capacious and voracious. Life lessons and advice can now be found all over the bookstore, colonizing the psychology, philosophy and religion sections, not to mention poetry, economics and interior design. These books often contain a reflexive denial that they qualify as “self-help” at all, implicitly acknowledging the genre’s hucksterish reputation. This combination of ubiquity and “nebulousness”, as Blum puts it, makes the genre extremely difficult to research: “One cannot simply type ‘self-help’ into a finding aid … and be presented with relevant material”. Constructing a history of the genre means pursuing scraps and ephemera – the faint traces left by forgotten gurus.

Much like Christmas and imperialism, self-help might not have been invented by the Victorians, but they certainly made it an art form. In 1859, Samuel Smiles published Self-Help, an unwieldy mash-up of quotations, sketches and endless examples of men (all men) who worked their way up from obscurity to professional success. Thousands of readers found inspiration in the pages of this unlikely bestseller, despite its reliance on “very long and tedious lists” and the fact that, unlike later self-help bestsellers, it did not offer any get-rich-quick schemes or tips for jumping the queue of life. As Blum explains it, Smiles’s appeal lay in the sheer weight of evidence he amassed that success was possible. As such, his book was a popular counterweight to contemporary novels, likeDickens's Great Expectations, that were more sceptical about the virtue of social climbing. This explains, perhaps, why the book, in its first year, sold five times as many copies as Dickens did.

Although he didn’t offer his own shortcut to success, Smiles did borrow liberally from other writers to buttress his theories, which had the corollary bonus of presenting his readers with a predigested literary canon. This allusive promiscuity became a hallmark of the self-help genre, connecting it to the older tradition of the commonplace book: a personal compendium of inspirational quotations, built up over a lifetime of reading. But here the work was done for you, in an expert cull of someone else’s library. In an age of rapidly expanding literacy, Self-Help helped the autodidact become himself, and its influence spread well beyond the English-speaking world. In the 1870s, as Japan emerged from two centuries of near-total cultural isolation, Smiles’s book became a “cheat sheet” to Western civilization. The authors he quoted were translated and elevated to greatness, while those he overlooked remained inaccessible.

To literary critics, however, self-help’s habit of mining literature for life lessons was fundamentally antithetical to its status as art. “Serious” readers were not supposed to pattern their moral lives after Jane Eyre any more than they would look to the braided crown of Titian’s Venus of Urbino for hairstyle inspiration. This highbrow hostility towards self-help, Blum suggests, was entwined with the rise of literary studies as an academic discipline in the early twentieth century, with its privileging of puzzlement over pleasure. Modernists such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and Gertrude Stein were prized for their refusal to offer up clear role models or easy answers to life’s questions. Yet Blum shows that even Modernists have become implicated in the self-help genre. Becket's “fail better” motto is a favourite Silicon Valley mantra, while Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life has become a blueprint for a surprising boomlet in books that read difficult Modernist works through a self-help-tinted lens. It’s the difficulty itself, and the absence of didacticism, that paradoxically draws these readers and writers to pursue the moral core of Woolf and Joyce.

Rather than sneer at this approach as dumbing down, Blum finds it “audacious” and illuminating, opening up broad questions about how and why we study literature. Contemporary literary fiction, she shows, is also productively engaged with the culture of advice, how-tos and guides to success. Across a wide swathe of works, from Lorrie Moore’s short-story collection Self-Help to Mohsin Hamid’s How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, the “automatic skepticism” toward self-help has given way to fascination and familiarity. The view that self-help is merely a case of easy answers for lazy people may be more revealing of its critics than its readers.

There are, of course, objections to self-help that are more substantial than snobbery. Many classics of the genre are undeniably in thrall to a particularly ruthless, even narcissistic, form of individualism. Smiles notwithstanding, this ethos seems fundamentally American: an inheritance that runs from Benjamin Franklin through Dale Carnegie (of whom Charles Manson was a fan) andDonald Trump's hero Norman Vincent Peale, and serves up a gospel of self-reliance, positive thinking and superficial friendliness, all the while blindly refusing to admit that “success” is a game comprehensively rigged in favour of white men.

While acknowledging these objections, Blum notes several complicating counter-currents. Against the assumed Americanness of the genre, she demonstrates the importance of a “global community of utilitarian readers”, among whom self-help books become a flexible and mobile source of inspiration – and not just for personal growth. She offers a wealth of evidence showing the genre’s international reach and unpredictable politics, encompassing Burmese independence leader U Nu’s translation of Carnegie, the secret popularity of Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus among feminists in Iran, Japanese manga adaptations of Marie Kondo, and vernacular Nigerian pamphlets that riff on Western “how-to mania”. Even in the US, self-help doesn’t simply endorse a capitalist, winner-takes-all philosophy. Feminist and African American literary traditions show us that writing aimed at inspiring and empowering readers can have revolutionary potential – exemplified by the poet Audre Lorde’s much-quoted declaration that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. For those excluded by race or gender from the standard trajectory of white-collar success, the coopting of its mantras can be a subversive act.

In this more generous account of self-help, it is no longer really a genre at all, but instead a way of reading across boundaries and borders according to one’s own needs and desires, rather than in deference to schools or canons. Putting the reader’s power on a par with the author’s and making her a participant rather an acolyte, it can be a subversive method. This “compulsion” has something in common with the ancient practice of bibliomancy, in which a reader would dip into a sacred text at random, to find answers or to predict the future. Dipping, skimming, cutting and pasting, and charting one’s own path through a book can raise the hackles of those who prefer a more orderly and obedient approach. Yet Blum argues that self-help is an “unlikely, vestigial sphere of literary veneration”, in which readers are seeking, and finding, profound truth and emotional connection in books. It is an approach that has fuelled the rise of bibliotherapy, which promotes the idea that books can provide real and measurable cures for ailments of the mind and soul.

But can they? Philip Davis’s Reading for Life is an effort to answer that question by observing and analyzing the reactions of a wide range of readers to unfamiliar works of literature. The book is the result of a decade-long collaboration between Davis’s Center for Research into Reading, Literature and Society at the University of Liverpool, and the outreach charity The Reader, founded in 1997 by his wife Jane Davis, which runs guided “shared reading” groups across the country. These groups are frequently made up of people from “hard-to-reach or easy-to-ignore communities”, taking place in rehab centers, care homes, homeless shelters, prisons and hospitals. Sessions focus on a “live” encounter with a literary work, so that instead of reading ahead of time, participants read aloud in the session and discuss their responses. Davis’s team studies the transcripts of these sessions, as well as conducting detailed interviews and brain- imaging experiments, in order to better understand the psychological and neurological impact of literary reading. His subjects have often tried many forms of therapy over many years, and he persuasively argues that literature, with its unpredictable and powerful effects, can help people break out of the rote narratives that therapy can inculcate, and make new and transformative discoveries.

Davis, a professor of literature and psychology, trains his critical eye just as closely on the transcripts of the group sessions and interviews as on the literary works, many of which are included in part or in full. He analyzes these poems and stories in conjunction with the readers as they read: noticing what they notice, and why. It is a revealing, if occasionally intrusive process, and one that blurs the line between reader and character. We are told that Tom, a retired teacher of literature, is obsessed with Tolstoy’s “blundering fools” and, in turn, that “Tolstoy knows Tom”. Imelda, a voracious reader struggling with severe mental illness, absorbs W. E. Henley’s “Invictus” so deeply the Davis dubs her “the woman who became a poem”. When the readers are allowed to speak for themselves, they offer simple and forceful testimony. As Keith, a recovering alcoholic, feels his way through Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, he is particularly struck by the phrase “myself almost despising”, which articulates a feeling he recognizes, of being hopelessly stuck between self-disgust and self-preservation (we learn he has attempted suicide more than once). That spark of recognition, of seeing and being seen, is what Davis calls “the literary moment” – an ineffable thing, akin to a religious awakening for a secular world. As Keith puts it, it’s something “you can’t unknow”. The irony is that it is extremely difficult to describe literature’s effects without literature’s tools of metaphor and imagery, and Davis isn’t always adept at wielding them. Tom, the retired teacher, is not after all a Tolstoy character, however tempting it is to read him as such, and Davis is forced to conclude rather anti-climactically that he is “for better or worse … a really real human being, deep and hybrid”.

Davis denies that his research is bibliotherapy in action, or that his researchers and readers are looking for “instrumental answers, novel cures, poetic therapy, or simple self-help effects”. After reading Blum’s revelatory analysis, however, it is harder to dismiss self-help as “simple”, or accept the implicit hierarchy that places it below religious experience and what Davis calls “serious literature” – a term that deserves closer scrutiny, given that his examples skew heavily toward a traditionally white, male Western canon. This is not to argue that all books are created equal, or that we should not hold passionate opinions about their relative value. But rather, we ought not to assume that we know what other people are seeking or finding in their reading (or in their therapy, for that matter). It is impossible to tell what a book will do in a particular reader’s hands, even our own, at the moment of opening it up. That’s the glory of it.



Author: Joanna Scutts

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