Carla Carlisle on self help books

Are you in charge of your life? Or are you being swept away by things that are seemingly out of control? What if you could take immediate control of your mental, emotional, physical and financial destiny for just £10.99 from your bookseller? Or 68p on The bookmark of my copy of  Awaken the Giant Within, an Underground ticket stamped ‘21 June 03’, reveals that I only made it to page 39. Suddenly, the underlining stops.

I look at the passages that, five years ago, seemed worthy of emphasis ‘Once you have mastered time, you will understand how true it is that most people overestimate what they can accomplish in a year, and underestimate what they can accomplish in a decade’; ‘If you make one small change, for instance, overcome your pattern of procrastinating, you will literally transform every aspect of your life’ and try to understand what I was thinking.   What happened? Why did I stop  some 480 pages short of transforming my life?

The last passage underlined, on page 38, is author Anthony Robbins’ formula for success: 1) Decide what you want 2) Take action 3) Notice what’s working or not and 4) Change your approach until you achieve what you want. Was I too cynical to believe in the formula, too wary to be inspired by the introduction, in which Mr Robbins hovers above Glendale, California, in his jet helicopter, on the way to a sell-out seminar (tickets $1,000 each)? From the air, he spots the building where, 12 years earlier, overweight, poor and lonely, he worked as a janitor.

Each New Year sends me back to my hidden shelf of self-help books like a dog returning to a buried bone. The very words ‘New Year’ fill me with longing to leave my procrastinating, cluttered, no-longer-lithe inner janitor behind, and become the focused, size 12, organised, productive and cheerful person that lives within, if I could just Take Action. Last year, my main action was to thin the shelf out, leaving  a large L. L. Bean bag of books in the farm office with a ‘Help Yourself’ sign. Someone added: ‘At least, Try to Help Yourself.’   Another reason I was able to condense my museum of self-help books was that I found a single volume called 50 Self-Help Classics, a self-help addict’s dream.

In the privacy of your own home, you can explore the ‘essential ideas, insights and techniques’ for the ‘literature of possibility’, as the writer, Tom Butler-Bowdon, likes to call it. A graduate of the LSE, he whips through the world’s religions, cultures, philosophies and centuries, presenting the wisdom of the ages in digestible bits, including his ‘in a nutshell’.  Although he’s left out Epicurus, who wrote more than 300 self-help books, he includes Seneca’s Letter to Lucilius, about overcoming financial and political disgrace; and his To Marcia, On Consolation, about grief and the death of a child; as well as Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditiations provide great solace in these days of economic collapse In the deepening gloom, I foresee a surge of self-help books.

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For my money, however, the self-help writer who best understands our times is Alain de Botton. In his slender How Proust Can Change Your Life, Mr de Botton sets the record straight. Proust’s seven-volume A la recherche du temps perdu was not a memoir ‘tracing the passage of a more lyrical age, it was a practical, universally applicable story about how to stop wasting and begin appreciating one’s life’. In other words, forget the lists and formulas. Take long walks, drink less but better wine, spend more time with the ones you love, read fewer but better books. Don’t feed the the giant within; nurture the soul. Mr Butler Brown’s summing up of Mr de Botton’s philosophy ‘in a nutshell’ is: ‘Appreciate the rich experience of life, despite circumstances. Low expectations make for pleasant surprises.’ And so the year 2009 begins.