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Deborah Hill Cone
Deborah Hill Cone

Mumble, Self-Help, Mumble

Time to get rid of the snobby stigma surrounding self-help books

Amongst the chattering classes—those who fancy themselves intellectuals—there’s a certain sheepishness, a shifty hangdog look that comes with the confession to having read anything remoting resembling a, mumble mumble, self-help book.

An acquaintance of mine just published a new book called Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There: A Manifesto in Praise of a Slow Life. (“Wallace Chapman is the thinking man’s Dalai Lama,” boasts the cover puff on the author.) Chapman didn’t mind being on the cover of a magazine sitting in a lotus position with a headline calling him a “guru.” But when interviewed about the book, the first thing Chapman was eager to point out was that his tome was not, excuse the discreet spit, a self help book. Inside Chapman writes, "I've tried to keep my book part philosophical, part anecdotal, part research and never new age."

Well pardon me, gentlemen. "What I mean is I am not a fan of self-help books. I don't relate to them, they're too ethereal to me. If anything, I wanted my book to be a mix of [British philosopher and writer] Alain de Botton and [cheesy American motivational speaker] Tony Robbins because, in a way, both have something to say."’ That's fine, except I would argue both de Botton and Robbins would be classed as “self-help” books in most bookstores. And what is so wrong with that, anyway?

So, who is Chapman’s book for? "I think the audience for the book is a person who ... wants a change. Or that person who is a little bit stressed-out, just a little bit tired, just wants another way of thinking about life.” Ahem, sounds like a self-help book to me. Why not just 'fess up?

I will come clean. At my grimmest moments I would turn again and again to books which helped change my perspective and get “another way of thinking about life” although they might not be the ones I put on my bookshelves alongside high-brow economic texts or prize-winning novels. But hidden under my bed, as though too risqué, are the books I find most medicinal during the long dark tea time of the soul. They include The Grief Recovery Handbook by John. W. James and Russell Friedman, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers and You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay. Lately I have also found The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels very helpful. "The motivation book that everyone in Hollywood is obsessed with,” as Vanity Fair described it, niftily avoiding the S and the H words.

I’m not the only one who has a secret self-help book stash.

You don’t get anyone more intellectual than the flat-out genius David Foster Wallace, After his death The Awl’s Maria Bustillos went through Foster Wallace’s book archive and said she was surprised at the number of popular self-help books in the collection and the care and attention with which he read and re-read them. “I mean stuff of the best-sellingest, Oprah-level cheesiness and la-la reputation was to be found in Wallace's library. Along with all the Wittgenstein, Husserl and Borges, he read John Bradshaw, Willard Beecher, Neil Fiore, Andrew Weil, M. Scott Peck and Alice Miller. Carefully."

So there, self-help snobs. Reading the popular self-help literature was part of Foster Wallace’s struggle to assimilate the seemingly contradictory ideas that he was both a man of exceptional talent and also a regular person whose problems could be helped by ordinary means.

As Bustillo put it, because Foster Wallace tried to cut himself down to size, he came to make use of some very “standard-issue” sources of inspiration. Bustillo identifies eight different types of pen used to make notes in Alice Miller’s Drama of the Gifted Child.

I am wondering whether the antipathy towards anything new-agey or self-helpy among sophisticates is just part of the difficulty in accepting that one needs help at all.

Here is one passage David Foster Wallace underlined from John Bradshaw’s Bradshaw On: The Family (Bradshaw populized the idea of the "inner child" in the '90s and sold stacks of books):

"I had degrees in both theology and philosophy and had taught both of these at University level. I felt that my problems were more complex than with most of the people I met at the [AA] meetings. My drinking was a symptom of a deep and profound sensitive soul. I was one of William James' twice-born super-sensitive ones. This, of course, was all hogwash! Intellectuals create the most grandiose denials!”

Is the snobbishness of those who are anti-self help books related to the idea that intellectual people are special snowflakes who have such complicated and interesting problems that they can’t look for answers in the same place as “ordinary people”?

Or maybe it is an intellectual’s distaste for the apparent self-obsession involved. Reading a self-help book is yet another squeamish symptom of the “Me” society. Even if this is the case, admitting to being a self-centred creature seems in many ways a more honest position than ruminating nauseatingly about oneself on the inside but flashily reading Proust because it looks cool.

Either way, I have decided I am going to get my shameful pile of self-help books and put them proudly on the bookshelf elevated alongside more "learned" texts. Not that anyone is likely to comb through my literary archive after I am dead, but they might find them useful while I am alive. And of course these days you can always read them on the iPad without anyone else knowing.

About the Author
Deborah Hill Cone

Deborah Hill Cone, a former financial journalist, will be studying post-graduate psychology. She also attended the University of Oxford and the Columbia School of Journalism.

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