The Self-Help Compulsion

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘How to Win Friends and Influence People” has generally been viewed as the self-help mother ship. But long, long before the 1936 publication of Dale Carnegie’s guide to self-betterment and reinvention (30 million copies sold and counting), the untutored and insecure had a choice of reading matter for the lowdown on how to live well and prosper. In fact, such books date back to antiquity, according to Beth Blum, author of “The Self-Help Compulsion.” What is Ovid’s “Ars Amatoria,” she asks, “but an ancient Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus?” As for one of the major works of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, it is “cognitive behavioral therapy before its time.”

Age has apparently not withered the appeal of the genre. In the past 30 years, notes Ms. Blum, an assistant professor of English at Harvard, the self-help category has been among the most lucrative in publishing. It’s easy to understand why. Self-help makes the sort of claims and promises—a whole new you! a whole new in-control, wise, cultivated, savvy, beautiful you!—that readers find it hard to resist.

A recondite, sedulously researched monograph, “The Self-Help Compulsion” traces the evolution of self-help books, places them in historical context, and, perhaps most strikingly, suggests that they’re worthy of more respect than they get. Ms. Blum also discovers a kind of cross-pollination between literature and self-help, certainly liberal borrowing. The wall separating the two genres, she argues, has been frequently breached, sometimes mockingly, sometimes admiringly, sometimes to teach a moral lesson. The titles of several works of literary fiction—among them, Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?,” Mohsin Hamid’s “How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia” and Jesse Ball’s “How to Set a Fire and Why”—cunningly ape self-help language.

Ms. Blum offers a close analysis of works by Gustave Flaubert, Edith Wharton, Virginia Wolff and James Joyce, offering a compelling argument for “Ulysses” as a self-help manual par excellence. Joyce, she says, employed proverbial advice in his works as “an anchor for his more experimental, esoteric formulations.” One particular favorite: “Let bygones be bygones.” She notes that Flaubert drew on a popular contemporary manual, fittingly titled “Self-Help”—by Samuel Smiles, a Scottish writer and reformer—to lampoon the foolish aspirations and failed DIY projects of the title characters in his posthumous novel “Bouvard and Pécuchet.” Flaubert, Ms. Blum says, showed how self-help advice “can’t account for the infinite particularities of real life” and “needlessly meddles with the natural order.” In Wharton’s novel “Twilight Sleep,” meanwhile, the main character is so ensorcelled by the latest self-help guru that she doesn’t notice her husband falling in love with their daughter-in-law.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

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