Changing times and the self-help book

Posted on December 12, 2017 by Guest Writer

An awfully long time ago I worked in a major city library. I recall a reader asking for a copy of Dale Carnegie’s “How to win friends and influence people” and after I’d had a quick flick through it, I wondered why anyone would want to read such a book. In the late 70s, the notion of self-help was as foreign to me as the idea of a Kindle.

Of course, we’d be mad to think that the self-help book is an entirely new thing. Did you know that silent movie star Douglas Fairbanks published “Laugh and Live” in 1917? In his book he advised people to “Laugh and you’ll be happy, fit, rich, successful and a joy for your family and friends.” Today we have laughter clinics in major hospitals, and many more self-help books on this topic.

Life became more complex

The big question of course, is why the huge explosion in self-help? We have gone from a sparsely populated self-help book market to one that fills shelves and shelves. How, or why, did a sector that was so niche suddenly become one of publishing’s biggest successes? Kara Cutruzzula, writing for Time says: “As life got more complicated, so did self-help.”

New markets appeared

Interestingly, the rise of the self-help book has spawned a swathe of new markets. As the self-help sector became saturated, publishers opened up new niches in personal finance, fitness and relationship books. As Cutruzzula comments: “Authors tell readers how to live more spiritually or better manage their time, or both, somehow, at once.”

No more ‘one size fits all’

Another reason for the unstoppable tide of self-help literature is that publishers have sliced up the reader demographics. The days of the book that is for ‘Everyman’ have gone. Mike McGee, Associate Professor of Sociology at Fordham University suggests, publishers sought to expand the market by creating, “Advice literature tailored to different groups, based on gender, age, sub-groups or professional status, which can provide more useful advice as it addresses the varied social expectations we each face in a highly differentiated social world.” Essentially, self-help books respond, “to the time that they were written and they tend to prey on people’s fears and anxieties about that time,” says Jessica Lamb-Shapiro, in her book “Promised Land: My journey through America’s Self-help culture.”

Economic recession boosts self-help

The global economic crisis of 2008 generated a new range of advice, about how to make money fast, how to declutter your life, and how to be more spiritual than material. It’s a logical response to a time when many people had a surfeit of possessions yet the economy was failing badly and people panicked about how to cope with days of doom and gloom.

Where next for the self-help book?

Since the 1980s, the focus has very much been on personal development and the ideology of individualism, but McGee suggests, “the culture might move away from individual makeover solutions in favour of advice on how to build up communities instead.” With an increase in movements for social justice and a sharing economy this sounds like a good bet.

I have to say that the self-help books I own are as ‘normal’ to me now as they were foreign to me in the late 70s and I no longer wonder why people read them, because I’m now a reader.