Admitting that you read self-help books is a sure-fire way to lose all kinds of credibility: intellectual, emotional and financial. A person who reads self-help books is like the kind of person who writes to agony aunts – someone who manages to get themselves into the most unimaginable scrape possible, but also someone who has no qualms wasting precious time seeking advice from celebrities with dubious credentials.
In other words, the typical reader of self-help literature seems like a desperate, socially-incompetent creature, to be pitied for their problems, rather than admired for their attempts at self-improvement.
While most people say they want to improve in at least one area of their lives, no one wants to actually be seen doing it, specifically if those skills are of a psychological or social nature. If you want to run a marathon, for instance, it is okay to be seen practising everyday, but if you want a successful relationship, God forbid you read a self-help book which teaches you how to be a better partner (ironically, seeking couples’ counselling after a relationship has already broken down, is somehow seen as socially permissible.)
By the same token, it is perfectly acceptable to read manuals or how-to books on cooking, coding, or to learn a new language. People are even willing to enrol in classes that train you to do these things. But when it comes to figuring out life’s fundamental questions – like how to be a good friend, how to be happy, what to do with anger – you’re supposed to figure it all out on your own.
The irony of self-help
Like most members of my family, I learnt how to read at an early age and never stopped. Once I was through reading everything by Roald Dahl and Enid Blytons, done with popular series like Tintin, Tinkle and Champak, I began raiding the libraries of older people in my home. These consisted of a wide assortment of books – literary classics and women’s magazines to books on childcare, origami and self-help.
As a result, I developed a highly indiscriminate reading habit early on. No book was too good or too bad for me. Young and still unaware of literature with a capital L, I found something of value in everything I read. Self-help books were no different.
We had a lot of self-help books at home. Most of them belonged to my father. The books ranged from advice on how to speak in public, how to read fast, how to be fulfilled, and how to move things with your mind. What I learnt (aside from the fact that moving things with your mind is called psychokinesis – a very cool word to know when you are ten) was an important piece of wisdom, that seeking help is okay and that there is no shame in trying to be better than you are.
I don’t quite know when the shame crept in. I remember one incident – I had gone to a book exhibition with a fellow book-lover. It was part of our annual ritual where we would buy books made available at ridiculous discounts. This included Penguins classics, science fiction, Kafka and Kundera – the usual suspects. This time I also picked up a self-help book on how to do things alone. The book had a clunky title: Positive Solitude: A Practical Program for Mastering Loneliness and Achieving Self-fulfillment (1991) by Rae Andre. I was recovering from a particularly bad break-up and having a hard time being by myself. Even though I was a veteran of self-help literature by then, I knew instinctively to hide the book from my friend, who was perusing, at the time, a well-worn copy of Kafka’s Metamorphosis.
For some reason, I knew it was acceptable to have existential pangs about turning into a cockroach, but to have a mundane and ordinary problem like suffering from a break up was hugely embarrassing. Few people feel the need to justify their reading of fiction – it enriches our lives by giving us access to completely different worlds.
But if books tell us that there are alternate ways of living our lives, that we don’t have to submit to the dominant social script of our time, that we can write and re-write our own story, then self-help books too play an important role. As much as I love getting lost in a novel, there are times when the comfort of a book is not enough. Sometimes what I need is concrete advice. It is one thing to read Tolkien’s creation Gandalf say, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us,” but quite another to know how to structure that time.
Unfortunately, when we took our haul to the checking counter, my friend caught a glimpse of my book on how to do things alone. I don’t quite remember what mortifying thing he said, but I do remember the raw feeling of burning shame rising inside me. I felt exposed and inexplicably angered, partly at the circumstance that created the need for me to buy the book and partly at the feeling that I needed to justify my reading choices.
The moment passed, I got home and began to read my book. I began to follow the instructions it laid out: for the first time in my life, I went for a movie alone. I started going on solo-walks, going to coffee shops by myself and, eventually, even took myself out on solo dinner dates. Now, as a resolute do-er of solo things, it is difficult to imagine that there was a time when I would hesitate to do something that I enjoyed, simply because I didn’t have company. Without having read that book, I might never have started and my life would be devoid of all the art exhibitions, movies, walks, farmer’s markets and strange adventures I had had by myself.
Of course, it is entirely possible that I might still have learnt to enjoy life on my own, as many people have. However, it has always perplexed me when people are so quick to ridicule and discard something that helps other people find their way.
The myth of total self-sufficiency
One reason no one wants to be seen reading a self-help book is that we want to give others the impression that we are totally self-sufficient. No one wants to admit that they could possibly be lonely or unhappy, or in need of psychological help.
There is a widely-held belief that self-help books don’t actually work and cannot possibly bring about lasting change. While the self-help industry, like any other, is not without its share of frauds, much of what we read in self-help literature can give us solid advice.
For instance, the main message of the self-help classic, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), by Dale Carnegie, is that if you want people to care about your needs, you need to care about theirs first. The book is full of sentences like, “Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn’t think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted.”
Sure, the book has things you might already know: it tells you that you need to smile, make sure that you don’t have bad breath, be a cheerful, encouraging person. But the core message is valuable – that nothing can substitute your genuine concern for another person. All things considered, this not such a bad place to begin forming relationships.
Another classic, M Scott Peck’s The Road Less Traveled (1978), taught me that love is not the same as attachment. Love is a verb, not a feeling. It is something you do for another person, even though you might not always feel loving. This is a hard-won piece of wisdom at age 30, but at 15, it was a novel and life-changing idea.
Even the much-satirised Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), by Stephen Covey, contains some reliable nuggets on getting things done. Covey writes, “You have to decide what your priorities are – pleasantly, smilingly, non-apologetically – learn to say ‘no’ to other things; the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.”
None of these books are without their flaws, but the idea is to treat them like you would any part of life – keep the parts you like and ignore the rest.