Self-Help Books: Brilliant Or Bogus?

July 6th, 2011

As a child of the ‘70s and ‘80s, I grew up in the “golden age” of self-help books. Thanks to the post-sexual revolution and pop-psychology, I’m Okay, You’re Okay and Our Bodies, Our Selves were shelved right alongside Tolkien and the latest Steven King (the latter two were more my speed) on the bookcases of the adults in my life. (If my parents owned the #1 bestseller Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex: But Were Afraid to Ask, I never found it.) To this day, I’m ambivalent about them. Haven’t you ever wondered if the secret to wealth, happiness, love, and whatever else you’re looking for is waiting right there in the pages of Dr. Phil’s latest? In spite of my curiosity, derision usually wins out. As I said to my friend D., an acolyte of books like The Secret, “Explain to me how a third-world child bride, for example, is going to rise above her condition by wishful thinking. Sure, we have the luxury to sit around finding ways to affirm our life choices, but is that really how we should be spending our time?” (Smug, I’m know, but I’m not the one proselytizing so that a self-help guru can buy another private jet.) A quick peek at the current bestseller list reveals things haven’t changed all that much over the years. The publishing industry continues to trot out titles like The Five Love Languages and The Happiness Project. But do they really differ that much from the recycled advice in Cosmo or from what our parents were reading in the ‘70s? I doubt it. While there may be some nuggets of knowledge to be found in self-help books, I’ll stick to earning wisdom the best way I know how: advice from friends and trial and error.

Find out more about the new “anti self-help book” The Case for Falling in Love or, better yet, watch Ryan and Tatum O’Neal as a father-daughter team scamming widows during the Depression in Paper Moon. Are self-help books a scam or a life-saver? Tell us what you think in the comments.



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Our Friends Say
  1. This is a very interesting blog. I disagree with you on some of your points, but I do agree with you on the ridiculousness of “The Secret”. The Secret of the Secret is that it was never a secret. However, there are many self help books that actually help. For example, Melody Beattie’s Co-Dependent No More was as revolutionary for women in the late 80′s as Madonna was. It was the first time anyone ever mentioned “love addiction” and still in 2011, we have many individuals who allow relationships (any relationship) to rule their lives.

    This is definitely a tricky subject. Thank you for blogging about it. You have me thinking.


  2. Jessica says:

    I find that self-help books, in general, are prescriptive placebos. It works as much as you believe it will work. As someone who used to edit commerical non-fiction, I can tell you from experience, that it’s about the hook or gimmick. Old information repackaged in a new way. While every diet and exercise book can be boiled down to four words — eat less, exercise more — it’s the *why* that takes up the 300+ pages with graphs and illustrations. The psychology and testimonials are what are supposed to convince you that *this* is the thing that is going to make the difference in your life. However, if it fails, the insidious understanding is that *you* did something wrong. Afterall, it worked for thousands of others…which is exactly why one will continue to go back for second and even third helpings of the self-help shelf. Maybe *this* one will fix me!

  3. Kim says:

    Great comments. Jessica, thanks for the insider perspective on self-help publishing. I suspected as much. –Kim @Tootzypop.

  4. Jonathan F says:

    You’re right, Kim! I’ve learned much better life lessons from a Jackie Collins novel, and I have a good time reading it, too.

  5. Leah Hallo says:

    Hey, Kim! I’m not opposed to self-help books (albeit some are ridiculous) – the fact is most people need the crutch or external motivation – if the self-help books get someone moving along in a positive direction, why not? The next step is learning to put the book down and self-disciplining yourself to fix whatever troubles you (addictions, hang-ups, fears, etc.) Personally, I wouldn’t have chosen Jackie Collins or Stephen King for life lessons, but they are both entertaining. My favorite “self-help” book (if I may reluctantly call it that for a moment) is Viktor Frankl’s Man Search for Meaning. There was a whole lot living underneath all the destructiveness and inhumanity of the Nazi death camps, proving humans have the ability to survive just about anything they may be faced with in life. In short, Frankl’s tome puts all the whining and pity pot-mentality self-help books into perspective.

  6. Kim says:

    Good points, Leah. I heard a story on NPR about Frankl’s book. It sounds interesting and certainly much wiser than the typical self-help book Jessica describes above.

  7. McKenna Rowe says:

    sometimes it’s about finding the type of book that resonates with you personally. I generally agree the books are b.s., but Tolle’s “The Power of Now” really taught me a lot about separating emotions from present reality. His Interview on NPR with Krista Tippett was wildly popular:


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