By Jacob Brogan
Let me level with you: I could use a little help. Maybe a lot.
Like most people, I eagerly resolve each January to better myself in the year ahead. Like the wisest people, I try to keep the resolutions modest. And like all people, I fail at everything I set out to do.
This year, I vowed to buy fewer clothes, which seemed like an attainable goal, especially given that there is no room left in my closet and all too much empty space in my bank account.
Unfortunately, I stopped to purchase a pair of pants and two T-shirts while I was writing this paragraph.
As I slide down the corkscrew of my forties, I am increasingly concerned that I may not be able to change at all. Sure, I quit smoking a decade ago (and, yes, again five years after that).
And sure, I bought an exercise bike during the early pandemic that I sometimes use. But it would be easier to tell you about the things that I’ve been bad at my whole life despite making every effort (okay, some effort) to improve: I slouch and have never figured out how to smile in photographs.
I am terrible at buying gifts and writing thank-you notes. It is possible that I drink too much. I certainly gossip more than I should. I am often very sad.
But if there’s one thing I’ve always been good at, apart from melancholic humility, it is reading. And though that aptitude has furnished me most of my adult jobs, it has done little to allay my failings or prevent my failures.
Generally speaking, reading a lot of books mostly serves to make you more insufferable, which is, as anyone who has known me since my teens could tell you, another thing I could use some help with.
Under optimal circumstances, reading a lot just makes you better at reading, and while that’s no small thing, it’s no help to those of us who want to, say, straighten our spines and pull back our shoulders. If anything, all of those books probably made my posture worse.
There is, however, one genre of books that I’ve never really bothered to explore, one that promises to make a practical difference: self-help.
As Jessica Lamb-Shapiro writes in “Promise Land”, a winningly compassionate exploration of the cultures of self-help, “The phrase ‘self-help’ carries a stigma among intelligent, educated adults.”
She posits that this has something to do with our unwillingness to acknowledge our helplessness, which is to say, our need for help. Speaking only from my own experience, I’d argue that it also has a good deal to do with simple snobbery.
I am a snob, though I wish I weren’t. That’s part of why I'm setting out to read a selection of canonical self-help titles this year, books that I’ll be writing about in these pages.
I’m planning to examine historical pillars of the genre such as “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, as well as more recent hits like David Allen’s “Getting Things Done”, by which my friend, Ben, swears.
I might even take on some of the anti-self-help self-help of the kind that Jenny Odell tries for in “How to Do Nothing”, though I'm sceptical about those efforts, too.
No one who knows me thinks this will come easily. “I cannot imagine you reading those books,” my therapist told me when I explained this project to him. My girlfriend was blunter: “Oh no,” she told me over text.
There are, of course, other reasons to be cautious about the titles. The founding premise of modern self-help, as far as I can tell, is that you, the reader, are constantly getting in your own way.
It is a literary form with one foot in magical thinking. The belief that you can improve your life by formulating better, more positive thoughts or habits inevitably means that you – and not, say, the alienating effects of capitalism –- are your own worst enemy.
Self-help is conspiracy theory in reverse: The conspiratorially inclined explain away the chaos of the world by identifying malicious Others orchestrating its ills, a premise that offers perverse comfort.
By contrast, self-help tells you that you are the primary source of all your problems, which only incidentally have external causes.
Even the most practical self-help guidelines seem to proceed from the assumption that cultivating basic routines can change your whole life for the better.
There is a wilfully blinkered Panglossianism to this premise: No, your job doesn’t pay a living wage, but what if you developed a firmer handshake? Sure, climate change seems bad, but have you considered making your bed?
There is some small truth to all of this, of course. I will grudgingly admit that going to sleep at night is more pleasant when I’ve tightened up the sheets first thing in the morning.
But these can only be balms, because it is the mere fact of other people – the many ways they fail us and we them – that does the most to render us helpless.
“The best thing about self-help is that it frees you from needing other people,” Lamb-Shapiro writes. “The worst thing about self-help is exactly the same.”
If I maintain some hope for my year of self-help, however, it resides not in the monomaniacal present of the books but in their more collective origins.
As Harvard professor Beth Blum explains in “The Self-Help Compulsion”, a vivid literary history of the genre, “The term self-help was popularized in the United Kingdom in guides to working-class radicalism.”
In its earliest forms in the first half of the 19th century, self-help was shaped by the conviction that improving oneself could and should help others, too.
This belief was evident in Samuel Smiles’s seminal “Self-Help”, a massively successful volume first published in 1859 that shaped the modern genre, even as it inspired many subsequent writers to craft more narcissistic guides.
Today, Blum argues: “These two strains of self-help – as a tool of depoliticization and a collective, self-directed coping strategy – continue to compete and coexist.”
As I set out to summit a pile of books that no one in my life thinks I should (or can) climb, I’m hoping I might be able to identify in them some of that foundational concern and care for others.
I know there is no guarantee that I'll get anything out of the endeavour. This is, after all, a self-improvement project begun in January.
The odds are good that I’ll give it up the way I have every other. But maybe, just maybe, I’ll at least manage to clear out a few inches of closet space before I do.