Self-help books, literature, and how they help us live

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Harvard Assistant Professor of English Beth Blum published her new book, Self-Help Compulsion, on Jan. 28, 2020. Photo by Aaron Ye

By Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite
Harvard Staff Writer/The Harvard Gazette

The New York Public Library recently reported that Dale Carnegie’s 1936 bestseller, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” was one of the library’s most requested books of all time. But despite the success of Carnegie and other self-help authors over the decades, scholars and literary authors often dismiss the genre as poorly written and commercial.

By contrast, literature has historically been framed by self-improvement advocates as an unproductive distraction for readers seeking personal growth. In a new book, “The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature,” Harvard Assistant Professor of English Beth Blum traces the historical relationship between “ambivalent shelf-fellows” of self-help and literature from the 19th century to the present, highlighting the different ways the two kinds of writing have influenced one another, and how readers have engaged with books as guides for becoming better people.

Q&A

Beth Blum

GAZETTE: Why did you choose this topic?

BLUM: The seeds of this project began when I was teaching a class called “Reading for Life Advice: From Socrates to Self-Help.” While teaching the class, I became really interested in the story of Samuel Smiles, who wrote the first book to be called “Self-Help.” The name was in circulation in other texts, but he published “Self-Help” in 1859, which was earlier than I thought the industry had started. The guide was written as a way to inspire working-class laborers to persevere to improve their conditions through self-education. The other point that interested me was the extent to which Smiles used literature in his manual. One of the great pieces of advice from Smiles is that you shouldn’t waste your time reading novels or literature, but ironically there were quotations from literature throughout the book. The quotations were decontextualized and then reassembled in interesting ways. So already, in one of the first self-help books, you see a real reliance on literature and an invocation of literary authority, yet at the same time a denunciation of literature as escapist and a diversion. It stirred my interest in this dynamic and often rivalrous history between self-help and literature.

GAZETTE: Did you find that these connections remained an important part of self-help in the 20th century?

BLUM: The more I investigated, the more I realized that there was this really substantial history that hadn’t been explored in literary scholarship: a history of self-help that went back further than I had thought, to include, for instance, the New Thought Philosophy movement of the 1920s, which is a fascinating mind-cure philosophy that emerged around the time of literary modernism. It was a direct precursor of today’s “positive thinking” movement. All of these pamphlets were emerging in the 1920s arguing that you could use your mind to achieve anything you want in life through positive visualization, meditation, and repeating mantras.

I was also surprised to uncover examples of so-called serious authors who had had some encounter with self-help and were responding to it. One of the most striking examples is the case of Virginia Woolf, who had a famous feud with Arnold Bennett, an Edwardian novelist who was considered very stodgy. Woolf critiqued him for being realist, materialist, and boring. But Bennett was also a hugely popular early self-help author who wrote books like “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day,” “Self and Self-Management,” and “Literary Taste: How to Form It.” Woolf was aware of these books, so it became interesting for me to consider “Mrs. Dalloway,” which is a novel that famously takes place in a single day, alongside Arnold Bennett’s “How to Live on 24 Hours a Day.” For an example of a similar yet reverse relationship that I discuss in the book, take famous advice columnist Dear Abby’s vexed response to “Miss Lonelyhearts,” a 1933 short story by Nathanael West about an advice columnist suffering from a nervous breakdown. That’s a really intriguing case of self-help commenting on the limits and methods of fiction.

GAZETTE: How do you bring your findings on the relationship between self-help and literature into your teaching?

BLUM: One of my really popular classes is called “How to Live: When Literature Meets Self-Help,” where we read the contemporary novel and directly address questions like: Why do people turn to literature for advice when there are so many other, more willing sources of guidance? What is the relationship between the rise of commercial advice and the decline of religious authority? One assignment asks students to go to the Coop or the Harvard Book Store and look at the different ways self-help and literature are shelved, who is reading them, and to assess what the bookstore is trying to say about genre and audience by those different designs and displays. In all of my classes, I am interested in the question: How can a formal literary choice — for example, stream of consciousness or narrative omniscience — reflect an argument about how a person should live? It’s a concern that’s threaded throughout a lot of my teaching. Students are eager to think about the life relevance of literature, and this is a tendency that professional academic literary critics are ambivalent about, but in general it can be a great way of bringing a student into a text and inviting them to consider the way the literature they’re reading responds to and prepares us for the challenges of daily experience.

GAZETTE: What does the landscape of self-help look like today?

BLUM: Self-help operates in waves, so you have one trend and then a reaction to that trend. For a long time, the self-help model popularized by “How to Win Friends and Influence People” was focused on how to please other people, to say what they wanted to hear in order to get what you needed from them. Much of contemporary self-help is reacting against that other-directed philosophy and the burden it places on the individual. Examples of that style include books like “Girl, Stop Apologizing: A Shame-Free Plan for Embracing and Achieving Your Goals” by Rachel Hollis, “You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life” by Jen Sincero, and “Drop the Ball: Achieving More By Doing Less” by Tiffany Dufu. All these contemporary books take the anti-people-pleasing approach, advising people to learn to redirect their sense of self-worth away from other people and away from the workforce and toward a more inward, self-determined metric for contentment.

GAZETTE: Are others writing about these books?

BLUM: A lot of the extant scholarship on this topic focuses on its rather negative political implications, particularly the idea that individuals are responsible for their own well-being and happiness in a way that absolves institutions and governments of responsibility for supporting people and making conditions more equitable. These are important arguments to make, but part of what drew me to this project was the slightly more affirmative story that I saw in the history of people turning to self-help, not just because they were being manipulated or out of a sense of political helplessness, but because they were successful in using books to improve their conditions. To me that’s a hopeful thing because it shows that there’s a strong demand for that textual-advice relationship. It’s one that professors of literature or the humanities can tap into in productive, socially responsive, and personally transformative ways.

This interview was edited for clarity and condensed for space.

(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Gazette.)

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