Almost twenty million self-help books were sold last year.
But the popularity of self-help literature is hardly a modern phenomenon.
Some of the writings of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers arguably fall into the personal development category. So do pieces of literature that were written every century after their time.
In a way, this can seem like a very depressing fact. After all, if the purpose of self-improvement books is to offer advice capable of solving people’s problems, then the fact that new entries have continuously been added to the genre for millennia means that none of the tips they espouse actually work.
But that is not the real value of self-improvement literature. The problems of being human — laziness, selfishness, awkwardness, distractibility — are not fixable; they are intractable. The best that self-help books can do for us is to take the principles attendant to living the good life — which really never change — and refresh and solidify them anew. The worth of reading self-help literature is in the way it can move values and ideas that tend to drift to the back of consciousness up to the forefront. The more we can keep our ideals at the top of our minds, the more they can influence our choices and behavior, and help us prevent, mitigate, and sand off the roughest edges of our perennial problems.
Not all self-improvement books perform this function equally well, and we would argue that old self-help literature does it best.
If the value of personal improvement books lies in their ability to activate your higher, but-all-too-often latent impulses, the more novel, and thus stimulating, their content, the better. This is where vintage self-help lit proves superior to modern fare. No matter how original a contemporary author is, he or she is still filtering their ideas through the dominant paradigms and language of the present day. Even when a modern self-improvement book offers ideas that are fairly fresh, the overall tone inevitably feels very familiar. It doesn’t do much to wake up the mind.
Books from decades or a century back, however, feel quite a bit different. They come at things from different angles, use different idioms, strike a different tone. Whereas modern self-help literature tends to use analogies that compare human nature with technology (e.g., our brains are “hardwired”), old books use metaphors drawn from nature; whereas modern self-help lit often rests on insights from academic research (cue …….