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A Short History of Self-Help, The World’s Bestselling Genre

29 November 2013

From Publishing Perspectives:

Self-help has been around for thousands of years, and it has been loved and hated for just as long. The earliest progenitor of self-help books was an Ancient Egyptian genre called “Sebayt,” an instructional literature on life (“Sebayt” means “teaching”). A letter of advice from father to son, The Maxims of Ptahotep, written circa 2800 B.C., advocated moral behavior and self-control. Ancient Greek texts offered meditations, aphorisms, and maxims on the best ways to live.

During the Early Middle Ages, Middle Ages, and Renaissance, Mirror-of-Princes books told stories of kings whose behavior should be imitated or avoided.

. . . .

During the 1600 and 1700s, Conduct books told men how to behave in polite society, and were popular in Italy, France, and England. In France, they were known as “savoir vivre” books. Historian Jacques Carre argues, “their spirit was lost, and only a mechanical application of some isolated recommendations, supposed to procure immediate gentility, was proposed to the unsuspecting reader.” Topics covered included “Loathsome and Filthy Things,” “Blowing the Nose,” “Hair Cut Round Like a Bowl-Dish,” and “Beards of a Frightful Length.”

. . . .

In 1913, GK Chesterson wrote a screed against the popularity of books telling people how to succeed. “They are books showing men how to succeed in everything,” he wrote; “they are written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books.” Chesterson concludes his very entertaining diatribe with the following wish: “At least, let us hope that we shall all live to see these absurd books about Success covered with a proper derision and neglect.”

. . . .

Many of the most ancient self help texts are still in print. Sun Zsu’s The Art of War, an ancient Chinese military treatise is popular among American businessmen; Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is a bestseller in contemporary China. Self-help books created from one culture can be just as popular in another: Wayne Dyer is popular in the Netherlands. The Secret (by the Australian author Rhonda Byrne) is a bestseller in Iran.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives


3 Comments to “A Short History of Self-Help, The World’s Bestselling Genre”

  1. It’s interesting thinking about the history of self-help, and how early it started.

    However, reading the short bio of this person, she apparently has an axe to grind. She’s publishing a book ‘debunking’ self-help….referencing that she had a parent who was a child psychologist, and surrounded her childhood with self-help books.

    In other words, she’s trying to debunk her parent’s life work.

    I’m not sitting in judgement over her feelings about her parent. It may be well-earned. But I take issue with her attempt to disparage self-help for other people.

    I think self-help books need to be evaluated by people with training in psychology/sociology (neither of which she has). Although she claims that it’s impossible to sort the good from the bad, and that the only real benefit from self-help is to make some people feel better for awhile, neither of those things are true.

    Of course, since I write self-help, I may be a bit biased.

  2. So, IOW she’s brought out a self-help book to help people get beyond self-help books? (And work through some of her parental issues, too!)


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