The history of self-help: Some books to read

self-help-books-coverI’ve wanted to read more about the history of self-help for years now. I’ve started Micki McGee’s Self-Help Inc. several times and always been distracted by something that seemed more pressing. I knew that if I read about self-help I would want to write about it, and I wasn’t quite sure I wanted to do that at The Health Culture.

I have written there about happiness and the positive psychology movement. I wrote several posts on a book I really enjoyed: Pascal Bruckner’s Perpetual Euphoria: On the Duty to Be Happy. Although I never got around to writing about it, I’ve repeatedly recommended a great article by William Davies called The Political Economy of Unhappiness. It’s about the responsibility of Britain’s National Health Service to keep workers happy, not for the benefit of employees, but to improve corporate efficiency. While these were not directly on the history of self-help, they were on the fringes.

Below I’ve compiled a list of books that I’ve either read, want to read, or want to refer to (even if they’re not worth a close reading). I’ve divided them into two parts. This first group contains books I feel confident recommending.

Recommended books

Ehrenreich, Barbara (2009) Bright-sided: How the relentless promotion of positive thinking has undermined America
This book is especially strong on the influence of positive thinking on the business community, including the attitudes expected (required) of employees. Ehrenreich also gives her objections to the basic message of pink ribbon campaigns, informed by her own experience of breast cancer.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell (1983/2012) The Managed Heart: Commercialization of human feeling
Hochschild observed what it’s like when you must routinely express feelings you don’t have in order to stay employed (think airline stewardesses in 1983). The world of work requires behavioral and emotional conformity. Self-help books teach us how to meet those demands.

Illouz, Eva (2003) Oprah Winfrey and the Glamour of Misery: An essay on popular culture
Why did Oprah become such a successful cultural symbol? In a “culture of pain and suffering,” we’re fascinated by the pain of others. We believe suffering is virtuous and that it leads to healing. Illouz is a cultural sociologist.

Illouz, Eva (2008) Saving the Modern Soul: Therapy, emotions, and the culture of self-help
How and why did psychology become the major determinant of modern identity? This book is not so much a history of self-help as an exploration of the cultural changes that self-help facilitates.

Kaminer, Wendy (1993) I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The recovery movement and other self-help fashions
Kaminer critiques twelve-step meetings and the codependency concept, as well as authors such as M. Scott Peck. What she finds in self-help is authoritarianism and passivity, too much submission, and not enough independence.

McGee, Micki (2005) Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover culture in American life
McGee is a sociologist and cultural critic. Women in particular, she argues, seek self-improvement to compensate for economic insecurity. Self-help overemphasizes independent agency at a time when communal resources would be preferable, but are less available.

Rosenberg, Charles E. (editor) (2003) Right Living: An Anglo-American tradition of self-help medicine and hygiene
Rosenberg is one of my favorite historians of medicine. Here he collects essays on 18th and 19th century advice on disease, diet, exercise, sex, and mental health, as found in popular medical publications.

Reactions to and popular diatribes against self-help

Books in this second group are not necessarily recommended (at least not yet). Some of these books are journalistic criticisms of self-help, aimed at a popular audience. Others are early and serious sociological/cultural/feminist reactions to self-help. If I were to do an in-depth study of the history of self-help, I would want to be familiar with these books.

Clecak, Peter (1983) America’s Quest for the Ideal Self: Dissent and fulfillment in the 60s and 70s
The 60s and 70s saw “a quest for personal fulfillment, a pursuit of a free, gratified, unalienated self.” What happened in the sixties was certainly a prelude to the rampant popularity of self-help in the seventies.

Dolby, Sandra K (2008) Self-Help Books: Why Americans keep reading them
Dolby, a professor of folklore and American Studies, read more than 300 self-help books (whew!) and concluded that they take traditional stories/ideas and present them in a format that’s easily assimilated and applied.

Greenberg, Gary (1994) The Self on the Shelf: Recovery books and the good life
Greenberg, a journalist, writes here about the cultural and philosophical determinants of popular “recovery” books.

Justman, Stewart (2005) Fool’s Paradise: The unreal world of pop psychology
Self-help books are badly written, shallow, and ineffective, argues literary scholar Justman. Historically, Justman focuses on the sixties (“utopian”), humanism (Maslow), and anti-psychiatry (Laing).

Salerno, Steve (2005) Sham: How the self-help movement made America helpless
Salerno is an investigative reporter and former editor of the books program for Men’s Health. This book includes a critique of popular gurus (Tony Robbins, Dr. Phil, Dr. Laura), 12-step programs, and the idea of empowerment through self-esteem.

Schur, Edwin M (1976) The Awareness Trap: Self-absorption instead of social change
This appears to be a reaction to the “human potential” movement at a time when it was still new – an early argument for what has become a common theme today: when we focus on changing the individual we ignore the larger social issues. “[T]he real plight of the poor will not be changed by consciousness-raising” (writes Kirkus Reviews on this book).

Simonds, Wendy (1992) Women and Self-Help Culture: Reading between the lines
A sociological study based on interviews with women who read self-help books. Not a denunciation of self-help, but an attempt to understand its appeal. “[S]he concludes that they offer an illusory cure for problems that are ultimately not individual” (writes Publishers Weekly).

Starker, Steven (1989) Oracle at the Supermarket: The American preoccupation with self-help books
Starker is a psychologist, and this book is a serious study of the history of self-help literature. He begins with colonial America and concentrates on 20th century developments, including “the impact of scientific psychology and psychoanalysis upon the self-help literature of the 1920s.” From his vantage point in the late 1980s, he argued that we should not scornfully dismiss self-help as little more than pop culture. Social scientists and health care practitioners should give it serious consideration.

Tiede, Tom (2001) Self-Help Nation: The long overdue, entirely justified, delightfully hostile guide to the snake-oil peddlers who are sapping our nation’s soul
Tiede is a journalist (i.e., a writer), and much of the value of this book appears to be in his writing style — described as “mordantly funny,” “a breath of jocose cynicism,” and “devilishly delicious.” His take on self-help literature is captured in the subtitle of the book.

Further reading?

If you know of a book on the history of self-help that you’d recommend, please feel free to leave a comment. I’d greatly appreciate it.

Related posts:
Self-help as psychological healthism
Self-help from Norman Vincent Peale to the new Oprah
Bibliography 1.0: Can I escape the judgment of psychology?
The joy of bibliographies

Image source: University of Illinois Press


Pascal Bruckner, Perpetual Euphoria: On the duty to be happy

William Davies, The Political Economy of Unhappiness, New Left Review, 71, September-October 2011


Sorry, comments are closed for this post.