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Self-Help Books

Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them

SANDRA K. DOLBY
Copyright Date: 2005
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5406/j.ctt2ttbv6
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  • Book Info
    Self-Help Books
    Book Description:

    Based on a reading of more than three hundred self-help books, Sandra K. Dolby examines this remarkably popular genre to define "self-help" in a way that's compelling to academics and lay readers alike. Self-Help Books also offers an interpretation of why these books are so popular, arguing that they continue the well-established American penchant for self-education, articulate problems of daily life and supposed solutions for them, and present their content in an accessible rather than arcane form and style. _x000B__x000B_Using methods associated with folklore studies, Dolby then examines how the genre makes use of stories, aphorisms, and a worldview that is at once traditional and contemporary. The overarching premise of the study is that self-help books, much like fairy tales, take traditional materials, especially stories and ideas, and recast them into extended essays that people happily read, think about, try to apply, and then set aside when a new embodiment of the genre comes along. _x000B_

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09099-8
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-xiv)
  4. Introduction: Self-Help Books and American Worldview
    (pp. 1-18)

    Do most Americans share a single, collective worldview? In other words, in the language of nineteenth-century ethnologists who gave us the word, are we Americans a “folk”? Most contemporary thinkers would argue that we cannot be viewed as a single entity—a folk. We are too diverse; we are the clearest example of multiculturalism in the world. And yet to outsiders, with every new Disneyworld or McDonald’s that springs up on foreign soil, we export American values, American ideas—an American worldview. I suspect that both opinions are valid. Worldview is a slippery concept. I have chosen to use it...

  5. 1. American Popular Self-Education
    (pp. 19-34)

    My model for disciplined self-reflection—my grandmother, writing her daily entries in her diary—did not consider herself part of a literary tradition. She thought and wrote for her own sake with no intention that anyone else would read her thoughts. The writers of popular nonfiction are by definition intentional “authors” with every desire that their works be widely read and widely sold, even become best-sellers. This tradition of the popular nonfiction paperback has not always been a part of the American publishing scene. Just as German literary historian Rolf Engelsing argued in Der Burger als Leser that in Europe,...

  6. 2. The Books, the Writers, and Metacommentary
    (pp. 35-55)

    What is a “self-help” book? The term serves to identify (very loosely) a category of popular nonfiction. Upon checking Barnes and Noble’s web site, I found more than 17,000 books among its holdings with “self-help” as the subject matter. In their Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Books, John W. Santrock, Ann M. Minnett, and Barbara D. Campbell surveyed 1,000 works they categorized as books on self-help topics. They include thirty-two subcategories within this larger category (ranging from abuse, addiction, and anger, through codependency, death, and dying, to intimacy, marriage, and sexuality), but they intentionally leave out books on such other topics...

  7. 3. The Critics, the Simple Self, and America’s Cultural Cringe
    (pp. 56-75)

    Many people seem to be annoyed and embarrassed by the fact that self-help books are so popular in America. And it is not that such books cannot be found elsewhere. I have spent time in Australia, England, and Norway, and many of the same books found on the shelves in America are found in these countries as well, along with local contributions to the growing international library of self-help literature. I even noticed that, in Norway, some popular titles such as John Gray’s Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus and Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversations with God: Book 1,...

  8. 4. Giving Advice and Getting Wisdom
    (pp. 76-92)

    One of my favorites among the books I have read for this study is one I mentioned earlier, Peter Kramer’s provocatively titled Should You Leave? A Psychiatrist Explores Intimacy and Autonomy—and the Nature of Advice. In the first chapter, he writes, referring to his popular 1993 volume Listening to Prozac, “I have written a best-seller, and when a psychiatrist writes a bestseller, he is next urged to write a book of advice” (1997, 15). Kramer addresses the significant difference between offering advice to a real “other” and simply writing in general terms as one would in a self-help book....

  9. 5. Memes, Themes, and Worldview
    (pp. 93-111)

    At the heart of all self-help books is a professed disenchantment—profound or mild—with conventional ways of thinking, with the worldview that is a part of American culture. The authors of self-help books universally adopt the premise that what they have to offer is a new way of thinking that will—to the benefit of the reader and ultimately the world—replace the old. Their task is a rhetorical one; they must persuade their readers to adopt the new and cast off the old. As have teachers and prophets from earlier times, they claim to bring a new philosophy...

  10. 6. Stories
    (pp. 112-134)

    Though self-help books are works of nonfiction and are cast, in general, into what composition teachers would call “expository prose,” they very often use stories by way of illustration. In fact, so common is this use of narrative that many reviewers of popular psychology books raise the issue of stories, testimonials, or case studies as reason to mistrust the arguments presented through such books altogether. Psychologist Keith E. Stanovich offers the following observation:

    Talk shows and paperback book racks are full of psychological theories based on the clinical experience of the originator. Many of the therapies presented to the public...

  11. 7. Proverbs, Quotes, and Insights
    (pp. 135-146)

    In creating self-help books, writers are eager to tap the great store of cultural resources that makes their works more effective. Some of these resources are more easily identified than others. As we have seen, traditional ideas are often hard to spot because such memes or themes are amorphous and ambiguous; the culture holds them uneasily in an invisible ether of worldview. Stories are concrete and dramatic; they are effective though at times unwieldy since they typically must be recounted in full. Another indispensable tool self-help writers have among their many cultural resources is the memorizable saying. Again, because the...

  12. 8. Finding a Use for Self-Help Testimonies
    (pp. 147-156)

    One of the most astonishing books I read for this study is The New Psycho-Cybernetics: The Original Science of Self-Improvement and Success That Has Changed the Lives of 30 Million People, published by Prentice-Hall in 2002. The author, Maxwell Maltz, died in 1975. The 2002 publication is not simply a reprint of his 1960 classic Psycho-Cybernetics; instead, it is an updated revision produced by Dan S. Kennedy, CEO of the Psycho-Cybernetics Foundation and successful motivational speaker. Having read Maltz’s 1960 work, I found the continuation of his “voice” in the new book somewhat ghostly, but the editors—Kennedy and the...

  13. Epilogue
    (pp. 157-160)

    What can we conclude, then, about why Americans continue to read self-help books? We might take the somewhat cynical stance that self-help literature is addictive and that unsuspecting readers get hooked on their fix of self-help advice as surely as smokers get hooked on purposefully interlarded nicotine. We might view readers and writers alike as participants in the revered American “pursuit of happiness.” We might recognize the whole enterprise as simply a continuation of the popular expression of a shared American worldview and regard self-help books as individual performances within that collective popular culture tradition. As a researcher, I admit...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 161-162)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 163-182)
  16. Index
    (pp. 183-192)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 193-194)