All Books Are Self-Help Books

Earlier today, I came across an interview with the authors of a new book called F*ck Feelings: One Shrink's Practical Advice for Managing All Life's Impossible Problems by Michael and Sarah Bennett. Michael Bennett is the shrink referred to in the subtitle, a board-certified, Harvard-educated psychiatrist . Sarah is his daughter, a comedy writer who has lent her voice to helping her father share his wisdom in an entertaining way.

Of course I clicked on the link to the article. I love psychology books. In fact, I came across this article while I was editing a psychology book--one about emotions no less. So, you know, it was research. Also, who can resist a title like that? I thought the title we currently have for the book I'm editing--Emotional Agility--was pretty damn good, but now I'm wondering if it's not profane enough? I'll take it to my boss on Monday.*

Based on the description of F*ck Your Feelings, as well as some reviews I found online, it sounds like a pretty good book. The premise is that our culture has come to value feelings too much--we're taught to get "in touch" with our feelings and to express them constructively. Only by understanding our emotions will we ever be able to move forward in life. The authors argue that this inward focus actually keeps us from achieving what we really want. Instead they promise to show you "how to find a new kind of freedom by getting your head out of your ass and yourself into the right path toward realistic goals and feasible results." Sounds like a pretty good promise to me! The descriptive copy closes by calling F*ck Feelings "the last self-help book you will ever need." (For the record, the copy starts by referring to the book as "the only self-help book you will ever need." Note to publisher: which is it?)

I bring up the last point because in the interview, the reporter asks the authors how their book differs from other "how to be content books" on the market. Sarah Bennett goes on to respond:

Well, from what we know—and we are two people that have never read a self-help book—they seem to put the onus for happiness on the reader. I've had too many friends who made Secret collages. And that makes it seem like, if you made your collage as prescribed by [the pseudoscientific self-help book] The Secret, and you’re not happy, you screwed up. When that’s not really fair to you. You could wake up that morning determined to be happy, and the first step you take out of your building is into dog shit, and now you’re unhappy, but you didn’t put the dog shit there. It's not your fault. You really can't control your happiness, no matter what a book says.

 I don't take issue with 90% of this paragraph. I have never read The Secret either, but I know I hate it because I hate any advice that teaches that the secret to happiness is simply thinking positively or putting out good energy into the universe or whatever. No, bad things happen to good, positive people all the time, and wonderful things happen to assholes. And I also agree with the author's point that there is nothing wrong with you if you aren't happy. Life is crap sometimes. You don't have to be happy about that in order to accept it.

The one comment I do take issue with is the statement that she and her dad have "never read a self-help book." Now, of course, I don't know what these people read. And, frankly, I don't need to know; that's their business. However, I would like to point out: you just wrote a self-help book! Did you not read it? It counts, you know. Also, given that her fatherMichael is a psychiatrist, I have a hard time believing he has never read a self-help book. That's like a doctor saying, "I've never read a science book." Dude, stay away from me with that scalpel! 

Clearly, this is not what the authors mean when they talk about self-help books. They define self-help as only what you find on the self-help shelf (say that three times fast!) at your typical bookstore. Actually, no, that can't be what they mean because their book is categorized as both "Self-Help/Emotions" and "Self-Help/Relationships--Interpersonal Relationships" on Amazon. And I'm sure if I walked into my local Barnes and Noble (which I can't do right now because I hurt my back, so quit criticizing me!), I'm sure I would find their book nestled comfortably between all those other self-help books.

What I assume the author means when she refers to these self-help books that she's never read are books like The Secret--inspirational books written by self-described gurus who profess to know the secrets of life and encourage people to follow their dreams and make vision boards and understand that the universe has a plan for their lives. Yadda yadda.

And I suppose that's fair because that's what people think of when they refer to "self-help" books, despite the fact that the category encompasses so much more.

When I was younger, I was something of a book snob. I wasn't reading anything all that heady, but I was only interested in reading novels (or the occasional memoir) of a certain literary quality. My mother, meanwhile, was a self-help fiend. I distinctly remember five books taking up space on her nightstand: The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, Financial Peace by Dave Ramsey, In the Meantime by Ilanya Vanzant, something by Joyce Meyer, and The Holy Bible (the ultimate self-help book!). There was also a brief window of time in which my mother kept trying to get me to read the book Why Men Love Bitches (profane titles strike again).

"It's not about being a bitch!" she told me. "It's about why men like assertive women!"

"Je refuse!" I protested (I was taking AP French). I was 17 and had dated two guys for a total of about 2.5 months. I didn't need advice about men.**

I thought these books were beneath me--and not just because I was a hard-headed teenager who knew everything; I didn't think they were worthy of my time when there were so many great novels out there that someone like me should be reading. 

I persisted in this vein through college. Then, after graduation, I got my first editorial job. I, like most would-be editors, wanted to edit the next great American novel--or at least I thought I did. Unfortunately, that job was not open in late 2007, so I took the one that was offered to me: working for a business book publisher.

I figured this job wouldn't last long--once they figured out I knew jack shit about business and had no desire to learn, they'd send me on my way. By then, though, I would have wedged my foot securely in the door and would be able to move on to something, you know, better.

Then something funny happened--I liked working on business books. Also, I had a certain talent for them--at least some of them. The other funny thing that happened was my boss kept promoting me. Apparently I didn't need to be Warren Buffett or Steve Jobs to be a decent book editor. 

Still, I persisted in thinking "I won't do this forever."

A few years into my career (3.5 to be specific), I took a trip to Eastern Europe with three girlfriends of mine. We had such a blast! We went to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague, and I drank more beer and ate more cake than I usually do in an average year.*** Here's a picture of me eating chicken at Cafe Sperl, the "best restaurant in Vienna" according to the charming Austrian man who gave us directions to get there.:

And here's a photo of me standing in front of the world-famous astrological clock in Prague:

So cool! Oh wait, where was I...

Anyway, on the flight back home, I read the book The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. This is a memoir by a writer (not a self-help expert by training) who decided to spend a year engaging in activities that, research shows, are supposed to make you happy. The book is great because it teaches you something about happiness (though it doesn't offer lessons per se) but couches all the information in an entertaining story. I thoroughly enjoyed this book--I think I even laughed out loud once or twice--and as I finished reading the last few pages, I had an epiphany. "Oh my god," I thought to myself. "I like self-help books." Followed quickly by, "Am I becoming my mother?"

These days, self-help is what I do for a living. Yes, I'm still an editor, and the list of projects I've edited ranges from books about emotions (Emotional Agility, described above), beauty, altruism, entrepreneurship, inspiration, career advice, dating, science, personal finance, time management and a whole bunch of other stuff. But the thing that ties them all together--what I tell people when they ask me what kind of books I work on--is that they are all books that teach you something that will hopefully improve your life in some way. Sometimes I refer to this genre as self-help. Sometimes I call it "personal development." My favorite term these days is "books for a better life" or "books that teach you something about yourself." Recently, a literary agent I was talking to referred to them as "self-helpful," which I might adopt for my own lexicon. 

In a way, don't all books exist to help us in some way? Sure, plenty of people turn to overtly prescriptive books to help them with a particular problem--whether they want advice on how to manage (or f*ck, I suppose) their feelings, be a better parent, ease their pain, build their business, advance their career, find the perfect husband, or invest their savings in a more fruitful way. But we also turn to history books so we can learn from the past or discover fascinating stories that may illuminate our own lives, families, and situations. We may pick up a celebrity memoir to be entertained, or a humor book to laugh a little bit and forget the stress of the day. If we're grieving the loss of a loved one, we may not want to read a book on grieving, but we may derive comfort from a memoir by someone else who has suffered loss. And don't the greatest novels teach us some of the most profound lessons of our lives? Don't parents turn to books to teach their children about animals, and feelings and, hell, even sex? For some, Judy Blume might be the first self-help guru they encounter.

So, yes, I know what Sarah Bennett meant when she said she and her father had never read a self-help book, and I will likely read her and her father's book because it genuinely sounds like a lot of fun. In the meantime, let's not be so quick to distance ourselves from the people who peruse the self-help shelf. Let's remember that the desire to improve constantly makes us human. And the surest way to fulfillment is to learn how we can help ourselves. 

*Boss, if you're reading this, I'm kidding.

**For the record, I did read one quasi self-help book in high school, The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis, which is one of my favorite books to this day. I read it because the second of those two boyfriends really liked C.S. Lewis. See mom, I know how to get a guy to like me!

***This is not true.