How to win friends and influence people was published more than 80 years ago, since when consumers have gorged themselves on self-help books, most of which promise to change their lives in just a few simple steps. Weight loss, assertiveness, increased control, career progress are just some of the many promises offered by self-help manuals and each year, these books clamber onto best-seller lists and stay there. Now however, the fight back has begun, led by an outspoken Danish professor.
Imagine you’re on a plane. There you are, settling into position, hoping the flight won’t drag and looking forward to arriving at your destination. Another traveller sinks into the seat next to yours. You offer a brief nod and watch idly as they proceed to get comfy, removing phones and keys from their pockets and positioning their reading material nearby. You look at the cover of the book: The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. What do you think?
a) Good for them – another of life’s seekers, continuing on their journey to reach their highest potential. I must recommend Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway to them before I watch Eat Pray Love.
b) Please don’t talk to me.
It was b, wasn’t it?
Where did the self-help explosion come from, and who’s buying these books? You might think, as I did, that they emerged from the greed-addled carcase of the 1980s, providing a lifeline for those left shell-shocked by a decade of inflation, John Lennon’s assassination and Freddie Kruger. But no: How to Win Friends and Influence People was published in 1936. And the genre takes its name from a book called Self-Help, which the unusually named Samuel Smiles unleashed upon an unsuspecting world in 1859.
Since then, millions of people have bought millions of books that claim to be able to help them on almost any quest: drinking less, becoming richer, stopping smoking, losing weight, gaining confidence. And yet, look around. With alcohol consumption still going strong, increasing numbers of people feeling strapped for cash and cigarette firms not exactly going out of business, it is hard to conclude that self-help books do the trick.
No matter. Self-help’s invidious reach now extends to everything from food to fitness. The rise of clean eating is just self-help in fetishised form. We’re invited to drink the kale Kool-Aid, and we go back for more – fitness star Joe Wick’s Lean in 15 book was the third-best-selling book last year, and the best-selling diet book of all time.
But the industry may finally be running out of steam. Right now in self-help land, two of the most exciting new concepts seem to be verbosity and profanity. Combine the two and you’ve got yourself a six-figure advance quicker than you can say “Seriously?”
Three of the latest manuals seem genuinely to relish peppering their titles with swear words so explicit that the front covers are littered with asterisks. Professing to help you focus on your needs and wants without worrying about obligations, responsibilities or other people’s opinions, these books seem to be encouraging an almost teenage attitude to life, replete with unnecessary expletives. They could easily be mistaken for parodies of the self-help genre.
But real help may be on the way. Now that we’ve just about recovered from a winter littered with books proclaiming how much we all needed a little more ‘hygge’ in our lives, there comes a new title from Scandinavia, called Stand Firm, by Danish professor Svend Brinkmann. In it, he insists we need no more self-help. No more finding ourselves. We have done enough. We live in a “culture of social acceleration”, he says. “Where God used to be at the centre of the universe, now it is the Self.”
Brinkmann suggests reading novels, not self-help books, and goes so far as to take issue with the king of self-help, Anthony Robbins, and his famous quote: “Success is doing what you want, when you want, where you want, with whom you want, as much as you want.” Potentially, argues Brinkmann, “this way of thinking resembles psychopathy or antisocial personality disorder.”
As Robbins’ client list reads like a who’s who of the great and the good in global politics and Hollywood, I couldn’t possibly comment further. I’ll just leave it with you… ■