Monday, November 19, 2007

Self-Help: By the Numbers

Redundant title?

I work in a library where people constantly come in looking for "self-help" books (aka self-improvement or self-actualization books), a catch-all for any type of self-guided improvement (economic, intellectual, or emotional), usually with a psychological or spiritual basis. The latest craze is Rhonda Byrne's The Secret, a get-enlightened-quick primer that, thanks to being hyped on Oprah, is insanely popular. (The "secret" is The Law of Attraction, which asserts that one's projected thoughts and feelings attract real events in the world into one's life. Various religions call this "prayer"; I call it total rubbish.)

It seems these books appeal to three basic types of people: the uneducated (who dream of getting rich/enlightened quick), the New Age-y (dilettantes who never tire of divining crystals/tea-leaves/runes or parroting the learned ways of ancient - and therefore "superior" - sandal-wearing cultures like India or China), and soul-less capitalists (Yuppies out to chase the filthy lucre). Personally, I find this genre to be nothing but a sham, offering easy solutions (in place of hard work or research) to life's problems with pseudo-scientific guidelines and pithy claptrap aphorisms. With a good press agent, Charles Manson himself could have become a best-selling self-help guru back in the day (Helter Skelter Freakonomics: Taking a Quick Stab at Success by Sticking It to the Man and the Brothers would not be an inconceivable title).

The phenomenon has long been the target of parodies, from Walker Percy's Lost in the Cosmos to W. R. Morton and Nathanial Whitten's Secrets of The Superoptimist. Wikipedia cites scholar Steve Salerno's assertion that the self-help movement (which Salerno refers to as SHAM, or "Self-Help and Actualization Movement") is not only ineffective in achieving its goals but also socially harmful because it emphasizes the individual rather than collective/societal solutions and acclimation.

One thing I've noticed is the popularity of numbers on the book titles, especially when outlining steps or referencing time - from the fast-track One-Minute Manager to that old rehab chestnut, The 12 Steps. I guess it's an old tradition, I mean Buddha had the 3-Fold Path to Enlightenment. And even Rhonda Byrnes' The Secret offers a 3-step program for fulfilling the Law of Attraction: "Ask, Believe, Receive." All you have to do to write a popular self-help book is break down any concept into easy-to-follow steps of numbers (five, seven, and 10 seem to be the most popular), and presto, you're a self-help guru.

Following is a random sampling of some popular self-help titles to be found on the shelves of your local library or bookstore. See what I mean?

The One-Minute Manager
Kennith H. Blanchard

Just One Thing:
Ten of the World’s Best Investors Reveal the One Strategy You Can’t Overlook

By John Mauldlin

The One Thing You Need to Know
By Marcus Buckingham

3D Negotiation
By David A. Lax

The 3 Day Energy Fast:
Cleanse Your Body, Clear Your Mind, and Claim Your Spirit

By Laura Lippman

The Three Pillars of Zen
By Roshi Phillip Kapleau

The 4 Disciplines of Execution
By Stephen R. Covey

Four Steps to Responsibility:
Techniques to Lead Children to Responsible Decision Making

By Jim Fay

The Five Lessons a Millionaire Taught Me About Life and Wealth
By Richard Paul Evans

The Five People You Meet in Heaven
By Mitch Albom

You Can Be Happy No Wonder What:
Five Principles Your Therapist Never Told You

By Richard Carlson

The Five Stages of the Soul
By Harry R. Moody

Six Promises for Emotional Well-Being
By Susan Forward

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
By Sean Covey

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Families
By Sean Covey

The Seven Levels of Intimacy
By Matthew Kelly

The 8th Habit: From Effectiveness to Leadership
By Stephen R. Covey

The 10 Commandments of Pleasure
By Susan Block

10 Minutes to Relax
By Paul Overman

The 10 Natural Laws of Relaxation
By Hyrum W. Smith

Ten Stupid Things Men Do to Mess Up Their Lives
By Laura Schlessinger

Ten Stupid Things Women Do to Mess Up Their Lives
By Laura Schlessinger

21 Ways to Defuse Anger and Calm People Down
By Michael Staver

The 22 Biggest Mistakes Managers Make and How to Correct Them
James K. Van Fleet


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