How-to writers are to other writers as frogs are to mammals,” wrote the critic Dwight MacDonald in a 1954 survey of “Howtoism.” “Their books are not born, they are spawned.”
MacDonald began his story by citing a list of 3,500 instructional books. Today, there are at least 45,000 specimens in print of the optimize-everything cult we now call “self-help,” but few of them look anything like those classic step-by-step “howtos,” which MacDonald and his Establishment brethren handled only with bemused disdain. These days, self-help is unembarrassed, out of the bedside drawer and up on the coffee table, wholly transformed from a disreputable publishing category to a category killer, having remade most of nonfiction in its own inspirational image along the way.
Many of the books on Amazon’s current list of “Best Sellers in Self-Help” would have been unrecognizable to MacDonald: Times business reporter Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, a tour of the latest behavioral science; Paulo Coelho’s novel The Alchemist, a fable about an Andalusian shepherd seeking treasure in Egypt; Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, a journalistic paean to reticence; publisher Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club, about reading with his dying mother; and A Child Called “It,” David Pelzer’s recollections of harrowing and vicious child abuse. And these are just the books publishers identify as self-help; other hits are simply labeled “business” or “psychology” or “religion.” “There isn’t even a category officially called ‘self-help,’ ” says William Shinker, publisher of Gotham Books. Shinker discovered Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus and now publishes books on “willpower” and “vulnerability”—“self-help masquerading as ‘big-idea’ books.”
Twenty years ago, when Chicken Soup for the Soul was published, everyone knew where to find it and what it was for. Whatever you thought of self-help—godsend, guilty pleasure, snake oil—the genre was safely contained on one eclectic bookstore shelf. Today, every section of the store (or web page) overflows with instructions, anecdotes, and homilies. History books teach us how to lead, neuroscience how to use our amygdalas, and memoirs how to eat, pray, and love. The former CEO of CNN writes the biography of an ornery tech visionary and it becomes a best seller on the strength of its leadership lessons. The Nobel-laureate psychologist Daniel Kahneman writes a subtle analysis of our decision-making process and soon finds his best seller digested and summarized in M.B.A. seminars across the country. Philosophical essayist Alain de Botton launches a series of self-help books called “The School of Life,” whose titles will all begin with “how to.” Even before books are written, their advances are often predicated on strong “takeaways” targeted to proven demographics. More like a virus than MacDonald’s frogs, self-help has infiltrated and commandeered other fields in its drive to reproduce. This plague of usefulness has burrowed its way into the types of books that were traditionally meant to enlighten, or entertain, or influence policy, but not exactly to build better selves. It’s generally led to better self-help, more grounded in the facts and narratives that drive the other genres, but also to a nonfiction landscape in which every goal is subjugated to the self-improvement imperative.
This new kind of self-help could never thrive in a vacuum. Or rather, it thrives in a particular vacuum—the one left behind by the disappearance of certain public values that once fulfilled our lives. Strains of self-help culture—entrepreneurship, pragmatism, fierce self-reliance, gauzy spirituality—have been embedded in the national DNA since Poor Richard’s Almanack. But in the past there was always a countervailing force, an American stew of shame and pride and citizenship that kept these impulses walled off, sublimating private anxiety to the demands of an optimistic meritocracy. That force has gradually been weakened by the erosion of all sorts of structures, from the corporate career track to the extended family and the social safety net. Instead of regulation, we have that new buzzword, self-regulation; instead of an ambivalence over “selling out,” we have the millennial drive to “monetize”; and instead of seeking to build better institutions, we mine them in order to build better selves. Universities now devote faculty to fields (positive psychology, motivation science) that function as research arms of the self-help industry, while journalists schooled in a sense of public mission turn their skills to fulfilling our emotional needs. But since self-help trails with it that old shameful stigma, the smartest writers and publishers shun the obvious terminology. And the savviest readers enjoy the masquerade, knowing full well what’s behind the costume: self-help with none of the baggage.
It was in the seventies that we began to shed that baggage, starting with the outer layer of self-help: common sense. Children of the postwar middle class were weaned on the mass paperbacks of Dr. Spock, and their parents learned how to win friends and think positively from Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale. But in the late sixties, that gray-flannel-suit howtoism gave way to the reemergence of an older, more mystical strain, part bootstrapping and part magical thinking. The New Age was really a revival of what had once been called New Thought: a religious movement spawned in the primordial soup of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud, and William James that preached the flip side of the Protestant work ethic: faith above works and a belief in one’s unlimited capacities on Earth. The new New Thought was the perfect religion for the Me Decade, a reality-show version of spirituality in which the meaning of life is to unleash the inner superstar.