Simonds writes about women's approach to self-help reading. She is most interested in self-help books directed primarily toward women. These books offer advice about managing relationships, enhancing sexuality, developing self-esteem, becoming assertive, and improving our spiritual lives. Simonds looks at hundreds of books, including such well-known ones as Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, Robin Norwood's Women Who Love Too Much, Harold Kushner's When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and Alexander Comfort's The Joy of Sex. Even though many critics see these books as anti-feminist drivel, their continued success says something about American women's search for meaning. Simonds examines the social construction, cultural consumption, and transmission of ideas about gender and the self. She wants to know why such books are appealing and what their readers are doing with them.
Readers' own responses to self-help books, though varied, do fall into patterns. A few readers reject the messages found in these books but most affirm the content. They look for validation of how they already feel and for answers to their problems. Traditionally women care for others; reading self-help books gives them a chance to nurture themselves.
Simonds explores the cultural messages offered by self-help books. What do the books preach about blame, feminism, and individualism? She looks at sex manuals which advise their readers not only to learn techniques but also to improve their self-identities. She looks at self-help books that deal with the larger arena of relationships between men and women. Authors see such relationships as plagued by nearly insurmountable problems. Men are obstacles that women must work around as they attempt to forge meaningful relationships in what is characterized as a war zone.
Simonds discusses the place of self-help books in relation to other forms of culture. She views self-help books as an example of the didacticism that pervades women's experiences. In her words, "self-help culture is our culture." The same therapeutic culture that characterizes self-help books can also be found in magazines, soap operas, and talk shows. These books are buyable therapy. In a sense, self-help books commodify readers by urging them to make themselves into objects of analysis and improvement. Such books try to give their readers an understanding of existing problems, but they also help create the problems.
Are self-help books politically conservative or liberating? There is no easy answer. The authors of self-help books seek answers through individual change, not social change. They reinforce the traditional dependence of women on authority. But at the same time Simonds argues that self-help books can validate caring, and serve as a form of women caring for women. These books shift the emphasis of caring, as they encourage their readers to care less about their involvements with others and more about their own personal development, but for the ultimate goal of achieving better connections with others.