Thursday, August 13, 2015

Why I can't read self-help books anymore

One summer during university, I remember there being a sort of tuck shop or newspaper stand right outside (or inside, I can't remember) our apartment building. All that matters about that was that I found it hard to go past the booth  after work without picking up a chocolate bar, especially one of those "thick" ones that had recently appeared on the candy racks. And paying for it out of my spindly minimum wage paycheque. It was a temporary habit that died out naturally when the summer sublet was up and I moved somewhere without a too-handy newspaper stand.

A couple of years later, I found I had acquired another, slightly more expensive habit: self-help books. "P" personality types love them, and I was going through enough angst at the time that I felt I needed their (relatively) cheap, if often contradictory therapy. Assert yourself, forgive everyone, stay away from toxic people, mend fences. Wear the right colours. Find your temperament. Drink herbal tea. Stop being a packrat. You are a special person. You are just like everyone else.

Actually that last one was true in the sense that, just like everyone else, I was trying to find the answers to life in the next overpriced book from Coles or Lichtman's, or from the Christian bookstore. Sometimes I did pick up useful advice, but more often I just read them and went on in the same old way, until the next book "fix" popped up.

All that was a very long time ago, and my need (and time) for personal-type self-help books slid away as life got busier and I found myself just doing whatever I had to do. Recently, though, I've been in a position where I thought a (public-library based) self-help book fix wouldn't be a bad thing. I'm at the age, I'm at the stage. So I picked up and downloaded a couple of newer books that I thought might be helpful for Women Who Used to be Busy Mommies Now Wondering What to do Next.

The word "crone" somewhere about page three should have been enough warning. I quit reading the "women's book" less than halfway through. The "happy homemaker" book, likewise.

It's not that my ego is so superinflated that I think I can't learn from someone else's wise words. It's just that, I think, I'm looking in the wrong Dewey number. The trouble with most self-help books is that they're like someone handing you a can of paint and a brush, or maybe a journal and a gel pen, and hoping that the tools themselves will give you an epiphany. I think the truth about life is out there, but it's out there in a lot of other places. You have to do some travelling, some collecting, then maybe come back and figure out what to put into the journal.

I'm going back to my "regular station" (a.k.a. a long want-to-read list). Ironically, my favourite book right now is John Ciardi's translation of The Divine Comedy, a journey through heaven, hell, and places in between. Virgil must have been the original self-help tour guide.


Silvia said...

Oh, Ann, ditto. (Though I have never read a lot of self help, I had a time of devotional type books, and some are great -more like The Imitation of Christ , ;)-than contemporary ones.
The Mind of the Maker was revolutionary to me, I stopped seeing life as a set of problems and more a place where we are creating, developing our imagination, minds, and hearts.
I'm glad to see you enjoy that title (one day I will ), now I am enjoying a different self help too, Don Quijote.

Mama Squirrel said...

I like The Mind of the Maker too!

Don Quijote as a self help tool--I like it! I picked our translation (for Year 8) last year based partly on your recommendation.

Silvia said...

:) Believe it or not, reading Don Quijote helps me know who I am, it's making me research things, I'm talking to the girls about Spain, my dad, etc. And I found Ortega y Gasset's book, Meditaciones del Quijote -it's in English too-, (I think you'd love it,, and it all helps more than a self help. That and, of course, a good reading of Scriptures, which I'm still in the process of settling and establishing as my daily routine.

Silvia said...

href="" target="_blank">Meditations

better link, I think

Mama Squirrel said...

"To be surprised, to wonder, is to begin to understand." Ortega y Gasset

Amanda said...

I think we learn much more from A. Scripture, B. Great Literature C. Great Philosophy (including for me great philosopher saints) than from a formulaic self help book, even if we think it is a formula we would like. As Peter Kreeft says, there is so much truth in literature.