Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them

Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them

by Sandra K. Dolby

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Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them by Sandra K. Dolby

Based on a reading of more than three hundred self-help books, Sandra K. Dolby examines this remarkably popular genre to define "self-help" in a way that's compelling to academics and lay readers alike. Self-Help Books also offers an interpretation of why these books are so popular, arguing that they continue the well-established American penchant for self-education, articulate problems of daily life and supposed solutions for them, and present their content in an accessible rather than arcane form and style. 

Using methods associated with folklore studies, Dolby then examines how the genre makes use of stories, aphorisms, and a worldview that is at once traditional and contemporary. The overarching premise of the study is that self-help books, much like fairy tales, take traditional materials, especially stories and ideas, and recast them into extended essays that people happily read, think about, try to apply, and then set aside when a new embodiment of the genre comes along. 

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252075186
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/10/2008
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 208
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Sandra K. Dolby, Director of the Folklore Institute and professor of folklore and American studies at Indiana University, is the author of Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative.

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Self-Help Books

Why Americans Keep Reading Them

By Sandra K. Dolby


Copyright © 2005 Sandra K. Dolby
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-07518-6



American Popular Self-Education

My model for disciplined self-reflection—my grandmother, writing her daily entries in her diary—did not consider herself part of a literary tradition. She thought and wrote for her own sake with no intention that anyone else would read her thoughts. The writers of popular nonfiction are by definition intentional "authors" with every desire that their works be widely read and widely sold, even become best-sellers. This tradition of the popular nonfiction paperback has not always been a part of the American publishing scene. Just as German literary historian Rolf Engelsing argued in Der Burger als Leser that in Europe, the nature of reading as an activity was itself transformed by the greater availability of books in the nineteenth century (see Davidson, 1989, 15), we could argue here that the growth of the paperback book industry in the 1960s changed the nature of book buying and consumption in America. The low price and easy availability of paperback books in the past four decades means that readers can now easily buy books that, with little regard for cost, they may or may not read, may never finish, may sell to a used-bookseller or recycle at a garage sale, or may keep and treasure while buying a second or third copy to give to friends. The convenient technology and booming marketplace have supported the growth of popular literature, both fiction and nonfiction. It will be interesting to see how the Internet and desktop publishing will affect our literary behavior over the next few decades. The last half of the twentieth century may well represent a unique period in publishing history, one that fostered this boom in nonfiction paperbacks. But there are other catalysts that have in particular spurred the development of a popular nonfiction tradition in America, especially nonfiction usually designated (often on the back cover) as "self-help" or spiritual enrichment. Four elements are significant as we try to account for the burgeoning of this tradition in the latter half of the twentieth century: (1) individuality and the concept of self in community as part of the American worldview; (2) the tradition of adult self-education in America; (3) the literary tradition of the didactic essay; and (4) the new paradigm of social activism. These influences have steered the development of this popular literary tradition, and our fuller understanding of each can help us explain, in part, America's infatuation with the self-help book.

The Self and Community in American Society and History

A striking characteristic of nearly all of the works of popular nonfiction on bookstore shelves today is the focus on the individual, either directly as in self-help books or indirectly as in books of popular science or spirituality in which the enlightenment of the individual (in contrast to expansion of a discipline) is the objective. This attention to the self is significant; it is the selling factor behind this flourishing industry. And yet the notion of self invoked by these writers is not uniform. Represented in these books are at least four concepts of self that differ from one another in significant ways and determine to some extent the direction of argument presented by the authors. I shall call these four concepts the obligated self, the social self, the wounded self, and the detached self.

One of the earliest works to articulate the now-famous notion of "rugged individualism" as the predominant American character trait was the treatise Democracy in America by French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, published in 1835. In fact, though the concept of individualism had been around since the seventeenth century, it was not until Tocqueville undertook his study of American culture that a term seemed to be needed to describe this seemingly ubiquitous personality trait shared by all Americans (see Stewart and Bennett, 1991, 133–36). Much has been made of Tocqueville's concern with the dominance of individualism over community, especially in the popular 1985 study by Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton titled Habits of the Heart, a phrase they borrowed from Tocqueville. As can be guessed from the subtitle—Individualism and Commitment in American Life—Bellah and his colleagues view the historical strength of individualism in America as a worrisome challenge to the more traditional sense of commitment to community and to the general good of "others" in the nation.

Their concern echoes the dichotomy and worry of another nineteenth-century thinker, German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies, whose classic work Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft (1887) posits the collective and cooperative notion of community (Gemeinschaft) against the individualistic notion of society, the isolation and self-centeredness of the single individual in the competitive marketplace (see Lasch, 1991, 139–43). And Bellah and his associates are not wrong—Americans do find it hard to abandon their individualism in favor of community. This is no more clearly apparent than in a contrast with the Amish, a religious group within the United States that explicitly maintains its opposition to the "doctrine" of individualism and insists, instead, that members suppress signs of individualism or "at least find fulfillment through collective objectives rather than personal ones," as Donald B. Kraybill argues (1989, 18). Except for such purposefully deviant groups as the Amish, Americans seem indeed to have embraced the notion of individualism and its veneration of the self since the earliest days of the Republic.

What this has meant for our study of popular nonfiction—of self-help books—is that an underlying assumption of all such books is the prominence of the self. Historically, Americans are attuned to the solo voice rather than the chorus; they expect writers to address the needs of the individual first and the community second. It is not that they—writers or readers—have no concern with community; instead, it is simply a matter of viewing the individual, the self, as the first order of business. Individuals must have their own house in order before they can sally forth to serve the community.

According to Sacvan Bercovitch, the Puritans were bound together by a "concept of representative selfhood." Little wonder, then, that from the earliest days, Americans have felt a need to scrutinize the self and worry over the actions of the individual as they do or do not further the individual's progress along the path toward personal salvation. This attachment to the self shows up most clearly in a sense of obligation to improve the self. For example, in a well-known parable in the New Testament (Matthew 25), Jesus tells of the "wicked and slothful servant" who failed to invest the one talent that had been left to him and instead hid it in the ground. This story is often interpreted as a judgment against those who do not work to improve upon what they have been given; in other words, the individual has an obligation toward self-improvement. God expects us to seek to better ourselves, or so the roots of Puritanism would have us believe.

Among the current writers of popular nonfiction, it is in fact often the self-proclaimed Christian writers, such as Stephen Covey or Scott Peck, who assume from the very beginning that the need or obligation for self-improvement is a given. Their concept of self is not so much that of a sin-ridden soul in the hands of an angry God (the Puritan image made famous by Jonathan Edwards) but rather that of a favored and blessed servant who does as God expects, investing himself or herself in the worthy actions of progress and self-improvement. This first concept of self casts individualism as a primary and necessary focus, a personal responsibility, a means by which individuals meets their obligations to improve upon the raw materials God has given. This notion of the "obligated self" encourages a kind of introspection and programmatic effort reminiscent of traditional Christian regimens, Protestant or Catholic (as well as those central to other religious traditions). The focus is on the behavior and spiritual growth of the individual alone, especially as he or she is tested by the demands of the world.

A second concept of self recognizes the individual as accountable to society and therefore requires a balance between "rugged individualism" and community. Writers who adopt this concept offer suggestions for achieving self-fulfillment within the context of the larger community. This is the ideal of the balanced private/public self that many of the interviewees in the book by Bellah and his colleagues seek for themselves. There is still the same sense of obligation to invest the self or the soul as in the first concept, but now there is in addition a social obligation. As Anthony de Mello says, good works, charity, and service to the community are undertaken from the perspective of "enlightened self-interest" (1990, 20). Individuals will feel more content with their stewardship of the self if life includes some clear response to the needs of society.

This sense of social obligation is not so much a moral stance as a wise investment strategy, to return to the parable from the Book of Matthew. Writers of contemporary nonfiction who invoke this concept of the self see cooperation with society as a sound practice policy, a recognition of nature as it really is. They perceive that society is a hierarchy and that the wise person is the one who can balance self-interest and cooperation with the systems he or she encounters. Many of the writers who address their books to the corporate world are particularly aware of this social aspect of the self. Peter M. Senge in his widely read Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990) articulates a vision of "the learning organization" as part of a "profound evolution in the nature of work as a social institution," and within that vision the individual is charged with the responsibility to learn the systems that will lead to self- and corporate improvement.

Others writers have adopted this view of the self, including Spencer Johnson and Kenneth Blanchard, whose One Minute Manager (1981) has sparked a series of books that instruct the individual in ways to balance personal and community needs. Almost always, achieving this balance involves learning and accepting one's place within a system that includes others. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi writes, "A person who wants to make a creative contribution not only must work within a creative system but must also reproduce that system within his or her mind. In other words, the person must learn the rules and the content of the domain, as well as the criteria of selection, the preferences of the field" (1995, 47). And by "the field" he means very specifically the people who maintain the system within which the creative individual works.

The selves in this case are obligated to use talents they have been given, and through their own attachments and systems of response, they are tied to a community that offers a context for their efforts. This concept of self is clearly situated within a social world. The "social self" is instructed to be aware of community as a system to which a clear strategy of response can be and must be devised. It is a self that strives for commitment to and balance among, as Susan Jeffers says, the many and varied components of life, not simply personal growth (1987, chap. 8). At the level of academic philosophy, this concept of self is the one that serves the investigation of identity and morality and much of the language of contemporary discourse.

The third concept of self is the one most commonly adopted by the authors of "popular psychology" books, by writers trained in the field of psychology. One might think of this concept of self as the "psychological self," but in fact almost always the concept involved sees the self as "wounded" or at least severely misled by the dysfunctional culture that feeds it. It is this concept of the self that so offends Wendy Kaminer—a view of self as victim, the wounded inner child, the "survivor," the codependent, the needy addict. Gary Greenberg in his study The Self on the Shelf argues that this often-invoked concept of the self represents a denial of the importance of "the Other," clearly at the base of modern philosophical discourse—the social self mentioned above.

The "wounded self" is immersed in culture but unable to relate to others in a healthy way. It is not surprising that many psychologists writing books of popular nonfiction view the self as wounded and in need of repair. The medical model of their discipline would seem to require such a notion. A cure comes in treating the wounded self, in analyzing the determining effects of culture, psyche, and personal history on the psychological state of the individual, not in addressing the connections between the individual and his or her community. James Redfield's popular Celestine Prophecy builds upon an understanding of the self as controlled by the circumstances of family "dramas," at least until enlightenment comes in the form of psychological education.

A fourth concept of the self is closely related to the third but casts a more optimistic portrait of the health or strength of the soul or spirit at the core of the self. This fourth view of the self is influenced by Eastern thinking. It combines a sense of detachment with an understanding of "the god within," or the notion that the self is indomitable and should act that way. I call this the "detached self." Some writers, such as Wayne Dyer or Ivan Hoffman, posit this observing or detached self as the ideal into which we can grow or perhaps to which we can return. This concept of self is closer to the notion of "soul" or "spirit"—the pure manifestation of the divine within every individual, reminiscent of Wordsworth's "child" in "Intimations of Immortality" or of Emerson's "oversoul."

A recent expansion of this concept is in the supposedly "channeled" book Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue by Neale Donald Walsch. Like Jane Roberts some years earlier, Walsch claims to be simply taking dictation from a conversation with God (with Jane Roberts, it was a spirit named Seth). In Walsch's first book (there are several in the series), God tells him, "Upon entering the physical universe, you relinquished your remembrance of yourself.... You are, have always been, and will always be, a divine part of the divine whole, a member of the body. That is why the act of rejoining the whole, of returning to God, is called remembrance" (1995, 28, emphasis in original). In Walsch's book, God is the detached self, the observing spirit who knows all of life and of whom we are all a part, though we have forgotten. Though other writers may not take the notion quite so far as Walsch, those who adopt the concept of a detached self do share his understanding of the self as a divine soul capable of stepping aside from those attachments to the world that make us seem less divine than we are. Such writers hope to guide readers toward that lost but always-possible state of detachment. The detached self is one of potentiality.

The reliance upon these four concepts of self in the growing body of popular nonfiction underscores the personal aspect of the subject matter. Whether feeling obligated, social, wounded, or detached, the selves that read these books are presumed to be taking up these readings because the authors speak to their personal worries or needs and to their desire for a clearer sense of who they are, the nature of their world, and what they are doing here. In other words, the readers of popular nonfiction see their reading as part of a process of self-education through which they will learn more about the "selves" these writers have offered to help define, enlighten, and perhaps transform.

The Tradition of Adult Self-Education

Many of the products associated with American popular culture are intended to entertain—movies, music CDs, television shows, comic books, paperback novels. But the books we are considering here—books of popular nonfiction—are intended to educate the reader. Readers buy them not for their entertainment value but rather for their utility in various self-initiated programs of self-education. The tradition of self-education has been a part of American culture from the very beginning. Joseph Kett, in his study The Pursuit of Knowledge under Difficulties, traces the emergence of the more inclusive tradition of adult education out of the various societies for self-improvement that were a part of American culture from colonial days, phenomena like the well-known Chautauqua movement. The nonfiction paperbacks that have become so popular in the last four decades are a part of this tradition as well but a part that has usually been overlooked in research on adult education.

In Adults as Learners: Increasing Participation and Facilitating Learning (1981), K. Patricia Cross reviews the work of researchers such as Allen Tough and Malcolm S. Knowles who have focused on the phenomenon of "self-directed learning." One of the striking features of adult education generally but self-directed learning in particular is that it is problem-oriented. As Knowles explains, the adult "comes into an educational activity largely because he is experiencing some inadequacy in coping with current life problems. He wants to apply tomorrow what he learns today, so his time perspective is one of immediacy of application. Therefore, he enters into education with a problem-centered orientation to learning" (1978, 58). The book of popular nonfiction, with its typical problem/solution structure, is a likely candidate for such self-directed learning. In fact, it would seem that such books become necessary as adult learners recognize their inadequacy in addressing on their own the kinds of problems featured in self-help books. Though Wendy Kaminer found this very reliance upon experts a shameful selling out of the much-vaunted American individualism, it seems an honest and utilitarian response to the nature of adult learning. Cross tells us that "self-directed learning is likely to be inefficient if the learner cannot define what he wants to know or needs help in locating the relevant resources. In such instances, the learner will be dependent on outside help" (1981, 194). These are precisely the two things that the author of a nonfiction book can do for readers—clarify the problem and offer an interpretative integration of sources as part of the solution.

Excerpted from Self-Help Books by Sandra K. Dolby. Copyright © 2005 by Sandra K. Dolby. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Preface....................     vii     

Introduction: Self-Help Books and American Worldview....................     1     

1. American Popular Self-Education....................     19     

2. The Books, the Writers, and Metacommentary....................     35     

3. The Critics, the Simple Self, and America's Cultural Cringe.............     56     

4. Giving Advice and Getting Wisdom....................     76     

5. Memes, Themes, and Worldview....................     93     

6. Stories....................     112     

7. Proverbs, Quotes, and Insights....................     135     

8. Finding a Use for Self-Help Testimonies....................     147     

Epilogue....................     157     

Notes....................     161     

Bibliography....................     163     

Index....................     183     

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