Booklist‘s December 1 Spotlight on Science and Health, now live on Booklist Online, has me thinking about self-help books. After all, many self-help books offer, or purport to offer, the science of health—tools for assessment that, if acted upon, can improve the reader’s physical or mental well-being.
We don’t review a lot of self-help books at Booklist. This area of publishing is cluttered with titles such as The Happiness Hobbit: How a Journey to Middle Earth Can Help You to Stop Feeling like Half a Person and A Lifetime of Joy—in Thirty Seconds a Day! All right, I made those two up (at least I think I did), but you know the kinds of books I’m talking about. I’m sure some of them are worthwhile, but many of them are authored by dubiously credentialed experts, and many make claims that would be hard to validate on our fast-paced reviewing schedule. In theory, you’d need some time to know whether the advice is working, right?
I think that, to some degree,
all books are self-help books.
Now, personally, I read a lot of self-help books—but that doesn’t mean I have a copy of Tiger Blood: Winning with Charlie Sheen on my nightstand. I think that, to some degree, all books are self-help books. On the rare occasions when I have some time to read according to my own interests (i.e., for fun), I choose books that meet some nagging psychic need or that help put me back in balance.
For instance, whenever I feel too much like a guy whose life revolves around a keyboard, a screen, and an e-mail in-box, I read a book about someone who’s actually had an adventure, such as William Laird McKinlay in The Last Voyage of the Karluk (1976). (Cold-weather tales of survival have the added benefit of making me think my cozy office isn’t so bad.) Whenever I feel as though I’m not taking enough initiative in life, I like to read about someone who doesn’t let puny obstacles—like a coast-to-coast criminal syndicate—stop him. I’m referring, of course, to Richard Stark’s Parker (The Hunter, 1962). And when I need a laugh, I can turn to Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim (1954), still one of the funniest books I’ve read.
Reading these books may not provoke any lasting change in my life, but they do allow me to spend a little time outside myself and my quotidian existence—and what could be more helpful than that?