Our Reading Lives

When Self-Help Books Aren’t Enough

This is a guest post from Emma Allmann. Emma spends most of her time writing, reading, and ice-cream eating. She talks about all the books she reads on her blog, https://emryal.wordpress.com/. Follow her on Twitter @Emryal.

I made some new friends recently, and upon being invited into their home I kicked off my shoes, grabbed a glass of wine, and made a beeline for their bookshelf. The first thing I noticed was the sheer number of self-help books. There was a small bookstore’s worth. One of my new friends stood nearby and said, “We figured if we got enough of them maybe one will start to work.” I was intrigued. There were multiple self-help books about working out, love, and success. I asked how they decided which one to use. They said they don’t, they just get overwhelmed when they fail to follow the instructions of one and find a brand new one. Ever since that night I have wondered why they chose self-help books instead of narratives.

I don’t want to disparage self-help books. I have utilized many an idea about how to improve my life after taking a stroll through the self-help aisle in bookstores. Though I can’t say I’ve ever subscribed fully to any particular self-help regimen (and I’ve certainly never confused myself by trying to subscribe to more than one). When I’m feeling uncertain about my career, friendships, or love life, I turn to stories by and about people who inspire me to do and be better. When I want to get motivated to workout, I read stories about people who have dedicated their entire lives to working out.

I get that the to-do lists that self-help books offer are appealing. Unfortunately, I’ve found that even with a to-do list in front of me, I’ve still got to decide to actually start making checks on it. When I turn to the narrative form for motivation and inspiration, I get to practice making the to-do list, checking it off, and maintaining that lifestyle, all while cozied up in my bed with a cup of tea. The next day when I’m confronted with having to take the first few steps of a run, or organizing my kitchen, or applying for a job, the feeling of fear and trepidation is still there, but I’ve already lived through it in a story the night before. I know it’s conquerable because I felt rejection, loss, and failure when the characters I read about did. We survived it together. Self-help books give us a to-do list, and if you find a to-do list that looks just right to you, I highly encourage you to buy the book and give it a go. However, before you check out, I recommend wandering through the fiction section, autobiographies, biographies, or histories, and look for a similar struggle, because those will give you the practice and courage you need to help yourself.