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Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them by Sandra K. Dolby

The self-help genre, to those of us who are not devotees (now you know where I stand), can come off as a bit of a snake oil bazaar. The idea that one could, after reading The Celestine Prophecy or The Way of the Peaceful Warrior, solve all of one’s problems, reminds me of that White Castle ad where the yogis meditate themselves up into nirvana, only to find that a schlumpy guy in a Barcalounger has gotten there first, via the simple ingestion of a burger. If it were that easy, why wouldn’t we all just do it?

Sandra Dolby, a professor of folklore and American studies, is determined to give the genre the respect that she feels it deserves as a genuine piece of American cultural history. Dolby scorns previous commentators who have come down as critical on the self-help genre, preferring instead to set herself up as a champion of the style. “I regard the writers of popular non-fiction as educators rather than merely opportunists jumping on the bandwagon of a profitable publishing enterprise,” she says.

Besides the fact that she doesn’t really have backup for this — there’s no ethnography of the motives of self-help writers — the position, given the best-selling nature of self-help books and the proliferation of almost-identical titles, seems disingenuous and willfully contrarian. I’m ready, as a reader, to accept that the books are folklore, or interesting cultural productions. I could even believe that an entire American Studies course could be taught about them — the different genres, the narrative structures, their evolution through time. But that doesn’t mean I have to like the authors or believe that they have a noble purpose.

But the book’s main confusion lies in its understanding of its audience. Dolby wants to appeal to an academic readership as well as a popular one, and the results are uneven. See, for example, passages like this one, clearly meant to introduce the concept of “the other” to a nonacademic reader: “From the earliest days of folklore and anthropological research, there has been an underlying belief that the ‘primitive’ or ‘folk’ traditions — the culture of the common people — was perhaps exotic or quaint but almost always inferior and flawed, backward, or even dangerous.”

This need to flesh out the basics leaves more cultural-studies-aware readers to skip over vast paragraphs, while wanting more explanation of other fascinating things Dolby mentions in passing. For example, before the ethnocentricism paragraph she alludes to a seemingly riveting study: “Several years ago I spent some time in Australia, studying some of the differences between Australians’ perception and use of their ‘national character’ and our own view of ourselves here in the United States. In that context I often heard the term ‘cultural cringe’ used to express the feeling of inferiority or at least neglect attributed to the culture of Australia when compared to British or American culture.” I wanted to hear more about that, not be plunged into a review of the concept of Orientalism.

Another example of this is the moment early on in the book where, discussing the concept of self and community in America, Dolby observes that “it is in fact the self-proclaimed Christian writers, such as Stephen Covey and Scott Peck, who assume from the very beginning that the need or obligation for self-improvement is a given.” I wanted to know more about the theological roots of the self-help books, and perhaps hear about differences between religions when it comes to their regard for self-improvement. Dolby might write another book with that more specialized material.

In the end, the book teeters between readerships, and manages never to come down with any particular conclusions. The promo text on the publisher’s website says that the book “offers an interpretation of why these books are so popular, arguing that they continue the well-established American penchant for self-education, they articulate problems of daily life and their supposed solutions, and that they present their content in a form and style that is accessible rather than arcane.” Any reasonably culturally aware reader could have made these arguments before reading the book. It’s not that Dolby doesn’t have interesting theories and ideas, it’s that she doesn’t have a read on how much we’ll understand, so she holds back on us.

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