May 10, 2007

In Search of the 50 Self-Help Classics

I never went in search of motivational or self-help reading, but at some point I did begin to notice these books. I knew that none of my circle of family or friends read them, or at least owned up to it, but as any normal person would I found the promise of two of the titles particularly attractive: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and Awaken The Giant Within. I finally plucked up the courage to buy these two titles and found them unputdownable. But they did not change my life suddenly - I still went back to work every Monday morning.

In 1995 I took the books with me to the UK, embarking on a Masters program at the London School of Economics. I knew that coming to London had been a sort of escape from a perfectly good, if uninspiring, life back home. But as the year unfolded, a mixture of laziness and personal upheavals saw me all but give up on my assigned academic reading lists. To the amusement of friends I spent my money and valuable studying time on a growing pile of glossy self-help tomes.

I realized I was at a career crossroads. I didn¡¦t really want to go back to being a government adviser, but what else could I do? A seemingly way-out idea niggled at the corner of my conscience: could I make reading and writing about inspirational books my work? The possibility of there being keys to a better life, laws of greater effectiveness, secrets to greater fulfillment, had got me thinking as few other things had. Here was a genre wholly ignored in terms of literary review but packed with ideas that could change and deepen a life as much as any fictional or academic work. Some of these books had been around for decades and still selling, while new titles continued to appear that struck deep chords with the contemporary reader.

Self-help and motivational books, I readily admitted, were considered by most people as being low brow, but couldn't there be a list of standout works that defied fad and fashion? What if I could identify the classics in the field?

I scraped through the degree, went back to see my family in Australia and spent time in the Outback. One day I set off into the desert near an Aboriginal settlement where I was staying. Armed only with some water, a notebook and Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth, I sat down on a rock under a tree to just think. Campbell's message was that many of us are trying to climb a 'ladder of success', only to find at the end that we had our ladder up against the wrong wall; the alternative is pursuing ideas that fire our imagination, even if we are dead scared of where they may lead us. By the time I wandered back that evening, my mind was made up - I would spend the next few years searching for the great works in self-help, whether they were written last year or centuries ago.

The result of my rather enjoyable time in the wilderness is 50 Self-Help Classics.

* * * * *

The self-help phenomenon

The self-help book was one of the success stories of the 20th century. Self-help as an idea may have been around a long time, but only in the 20th century did it become a mass phenomenon. Books like How To Win Friends and Influence People (first published in 1936) and The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) were bought by people wanting to make more of their lives, willing to believe that the secrets of success and well-being could be found in a paperback.

Maybe the genre took on its lowbrow image because the books were so readily available, promised so much, and contained ideas you were unlikely to hear from a professor or a minister. Whatever the image, the genre took off. An exact number is impossible to calculate, but worldwide sales figures for the genre would run to the hundreds of millions.

The books and their authors

Dale Carnegie was a poor farm boy who didn't see a train until he was 12, but after stints as a salesman and actor found his niche running hugely successful YMCA courses for businessmen on how to communicate better. The courses became a book with an initial print run of 5,000, but quickly became a bestseller. How To Win Friends and Influence People has now sold more than 17 million copies in its various editions.

Norman Vincent Peale was a minister in New York where his sermons were so popular people queued around the block to hear him. His classic, The Power of Positive Thinking, with simple anecdotes on how to overcome adversity through strong faith, received more than 30 rejection slips from publishers before going on to be one of the most successful non-fiction titles of all time.

These titles arose from the authors' life experience, but contemporary self-help literature is more conventionally scientific, a lot of it derived from motivational and cognitive psychology. Titles such as Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence, Martin Seligman's Learned Optimism and David Burns' Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, have reached a new audience who may not have previously considered reading self-help books.

Yet validation by science has never been essential to the most successful self-help titles; what matters is whether the ideas and techniques work. Anthony Robbins' Awaken the Giant Within and Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People continue to be massive sellers, the former based on powerful techniques from the mind science of neuro-linguistic programming, and the latter a suprisingly old-fashioned return to the idea of developing good character based on deeply-held but consciously-created values.

Self-help also covers the gamut of new age ideas and spirituality, from M Scott Peck's pioneering The Road Less Traveled (first published 1978), which mixes Christian ideas such as grace and sin with modern psychology, to superguru Deepak Chopra's The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, a guide to achieving prosperity through stillness and non-judgement.

Other prime examples of the breadth of thinking include Paulo Coelho's inspirational novel about following your dreams, The Alchemist, Marianne Williamson's A Return to Love and the Dalai Lama's The Art of Happiness. Each of these are derived from Eastern and Western spiritual traditions but incorporate new twists that bring them closer to the modern reader's experience.

In contrast to its lightweight image, the genre contains a wealth of 'deeper' material. Consider ex-monk Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul, a New York Times bestseller inspired by the thinking of Renaissance men Ficino and Paracelsus, and Clarissa Pinkola Estes' Women Who Run With the Wolves, a tour of the feminine spirit based on archetypal psychology and indigenous storytelling. And no self-help section should be without Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, Frankl's account of his time in Nazi concentration camps, where he struggled to find reasons to live, and the psychotherapeutic method he developed based on his experiences.

One of the perverse pressures of our time (at least in rich countries) is the expansion of choice. Many contemporary self-help works, from Phil McGraw's Life Strategies to Martha Beck's Finding Your Own North Star, deal with the paradox that the more choice we have, the greater our need for focus. Common to many recent self-help works is the conviction that the most satisfying and rewarding careers and lifestyles come from appreciating your uniqueness and capitalising on it. This is in contrast to the idea that life is a competition in which we all struggle for the same prizes. As people become more concerned about fulfilling their potential, expect this link between uniqueness and success to become even stronger in self-help writing.

What is self-help?

The literature covers a broad range of topics and may be difficult to define, but if there is something that links it all together, it is perhaps the refusal to accept ¡¥quiet desperation¡¦ or even mild unhappiness as the lot of humankind. Many self-help classics are the distillation of a difficult experience, but the basic premise of the literature is that we cannot be determined by genes or environment or fate, that there is always some room to make our own path or become someone new. In this sense self-help writing may be described as the literature of possibility - not necessarily promoting great success and achievement, but a life of greater meaning and richness, lived on our own terms.

Modern self-help grew partly as a response to the lessening of importance of traditional religion and the extended family in people's lives. Many still see it as a weed, but throughout history people have needed someone or something to have faith in them, to validate their desire for self-improvement. The best self-help writing provides this.

Like any genre, it has its fair share of the mediocre, but it has a significant number of classics that deserve to be highlighted and rediscovered. 50 Self-Help Classics also includes older works, because the self-help ethic has been with us through the ages. The Bible, the Bhagavad-Gita and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, for example, may not have been thought of as self-help before, but at root they are about the improvement of the self and the idea that a person, by transforming themselves, can change a little bit of the world.

Tom Butler-Bowdon, 2003.

Author's Bio

Tom Butler-Bowdon is a passionate advocate of the power of positive self-help, what he calls the literature of possibility. He has spent five years researching and writing 50 Self-Help Classics: 50 Inspirational Books to Transform Your Life, published nationally by Nicholas Brealey (pbk, 303 pages, $18.95, 1857883233). His inspirational self-help classics website is at

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