‘Self-Help’ and ‘Literature’ Serve the Same Purpose
Is it possible to read your way to self-improvement? The gatekeepers of literature as high art have always said no. Books are there to be studied, interpreted, admired, even loved — but not used. They are not there to impart lessons to the reader, to model ways of being. One is not “supposed” to turn to Jane Austen for relationship advice, any more than one should use The Odyssey to plan a sightseeing trip to the Greek islands.
And yet, as Harvard English professor Beth Blum demonstrates in her new book The Self-Help Compulsion, the dividing line between those “ambivalent shelf-fellows” literature and self-help has never been clear and has only blurred over time. Readers have always turned to the classics for life lessons, and writers, even the most committed to “art for art’s sake,” as Blum puts it, have been fascinated by advice literature and how-to guides. This is particularly true in uncertain times — like our own.
“Self-help,” Blum explains, can mean two different things. On the one hand, it’s simply a way of reading, a deliberately unsystematic pursuit of life lessons: The reader might glean wisdom from any kind of book, dipping in and casting aside according to her own preferences and needs.
Or, as most of us use it today, “self-help” can refer to a particular kind of book intended to make the reader’s life better — those innumerable how-to guides for dieting, decluttering, dating, or detoxing. This kind of self-help book became popular in the late 19th century, alongside the rise of the corporation and the huge growth of cities. One of its central goals was to help readers (especially, though not exclusively, upwardly mobile men) adapt to the demands of a new economy and to get ahead in an increasingly cutthroat individualistic world.
Increased literacy over the same period meant that far more people were reading books for both pleasure and self-improvement. One of the earliest bestsellers Blum discusses, Self-Help by the Scottish journalist Samuel Smiles, set the pattern for the genre, combining inspirational stories with a patchwork of quotations from great (male) authors and a message that insisted on both the possibility and the obligation to rise above one’s circumstances. (Over a century later, the conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher wanted every schoolchild in Britain to have a copy.)
As Self-Help and its imitators gained popularity, critics worried over the influence of these books. Some of this was simple class snobbery — the belief that upward mobility could not (or should not) be that easy. But others feared that self-help was preaching empowerment strictly within the rules of capitalism and discouraging real political engagement: Make yourself a better person, but don’t try to make a better society. Climb the ladder, but don’t rock the boat.
Yet even as critics of self-help have argued that its vision of success is narcissistic and a refusal of political and economic realities, the genre is often — albeit, obliquely — a response to those very realities.
As the early 20th century brought tides of rapid change and political tumult, the rise of New Thought — a psychological fad that Blum describes as a more optimistic and accessible version of Freudianism — fueled many self-help authors whose theories relied on the power of mind over matter. The 1930s were a notable boom period for self-help books in the United States. It’s not hard to see why, amid the Great Depression and the rise of Hitler, readers wanted to be reassured that they still had power over their lives.
A bestseller from this era was Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937), a seductive combination of inspirational mantras and interviews with rich and powerful men who gladly supported Hill’s premise that their own success was the result of self-belief, rather than privilege or luck. One of the most famous self-help titles to this day was also published around the same time: Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.
Like Hill, Carnegie drew from the stories of influential U.S. leaders to establish a set of 12 core principles for winning people over. By the book’s 75th anniversary in 2011, it had sold an estimated 30 million copies worldwide and inspired countless imitators. Among those was Norman Vincent Peale, whose The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) would directly inform another notable bestselling business memoir more than three decades later: Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal.
It’s no wonder that self-help is often thought of as a quintessentially American up-by-the-bootstraps genre. But self-help books have also found eager readers overseas, especially amid anti-colonial struggle, political resistance, and social change. Smiles’ Self-Help was enormously popular in Japan in the late 19th century, as the isolationist shogun era came to an end.
In Burma (now Myanmar), U Nu — the first prime minister following independence from Great Britain in 1948 — took it upon himself to translate Carnegie’s book into Burmese. And in post-Revolutionary Iran, young feminists took inspiration from Western relationship guides.
These unexpected circulations and uses demonstrate the open-endedness of self-help: We can’t predict how a book will empower a reader or where that empowerment will take them.
The same can be said of literature — and in literature. Characters looking to transcend their circumstances often turn to books for self-education, reading against the expectations of gender, race, and class.
In Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, rebellious Jo March draws creative inspiration from Dickens’s The Pickwick Papers, Shakespeare’s tragedies, and other books not intended for young women. Ann Petry’s 1946 novel The Street shows heroine Lutie Johnson, a young Black single mother in postwar Harlem, turning to Benjamin Franklin for support and guidance in her daily life.
Books alone can’t help a character escape her circumstances. But they can lead readers to a sharper awareness of their place in the world and, ultimately, Blum suggests, toward a deeper political engagement with it. For Jo and Lutie, and for disenfranchised readers around the world, the pursuit of literary self-improvement can be a way to insist on one’s value and visibility.
The breakdown of the barrier between literature and self-help has accelerated with the internet’s democratizing of information and authority, amid increasingly uncertain paths to prosperity. When college doesn’t guarantee much beyond decades of debt, why shouldn’t readers branch out alone to answer their own questions? We are all gleaning fragments of information, quotations and headlines and one-liners circulating free from context. Literature can be mined however we want — for nuggets of inspiration, as in Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings project, for adaptation and remixing and talking back, for role models to pattern our uncertain selves.
Bestselling contemporary authors like Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed leap freely over the boundary between literature and inspiration, while Michelle Obama’s hugely successful memoir Becoming found new life as a “guided journal” to help readers achieve their own version of greatness. Many modern self-help books, in turn, encourage a utilitarian approach to literary consumption. In How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), pop philosopher Alain de Botton takes on a titan of inaccessible literary aestheticism and turns him into a lifestyle guru, combining biography with Proust’s advice on everything from enjoying a vacation to making friends. More recently, Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin’s 2014 collection The Novel Cure set out “to cure what ails you” — from “abandonment” to “zestlessness” — with a choice of more than 750 books of literary fiction.
In her 1925 essay “How Should One Read a Book?” Virginia Woolf encouraged readers to reject other people’s rules of reading and instead “to follow your own instincts, to use your own reason, to come to your own conclusions.” As long as humans strive to understand the world, we will look to books for answers. Whether we find them in classic novels, self-help books, or any genre in between is less important than our freedom to pursue them how we choose.