Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 September 2014

Delusional and mad they may be, but I love my big pile of self-help books

Do you need help? Well, help yourself. Fill, as it were, your boots. Your own boots, mind. Yup, we live in do-it-yourself society or, perhaps more accurately, a read about doing-it-yourself society.

We can't help buying self-help books. Self-certified gurus have taken the place of priests and ministers, who fell from grace with the discovery by Darwin that they were talking cack.

Even then, it was a rare Sunday in church when you'd be offered five ways to improve your self-esteem, make friends through aromatherapy, or what to expect in the afterlife. Well, true, they did mention the last, but never fleshed out the detail beyond a suggestion that there'd be a lot of singing and you'd have to wear a nightgown.

I'm not saying self-help has all been brilliant. Heaven forfend. I'm a newspaper columnist: we never praise anything, but always come to bury. In particular the scourge of positive thinking has wreaked havoc on the world. Keep smiling. Get a glazed look in your eye. Oh, I'm so happy. Not on my watch you ain't, matey.

Self-help is all about misery and failings. That's why we buy books on it by the barrowload. Misery cheers us up. Recently, I picked up a Shakespeare play but, after a couple of pages, watched a Star Trek film instead. In it, the crew all fell for a Vulcan who took away their fear and misery. But Captain Kirk refused, arguing cogently that his fear and misery were part of him. They helped make him what he was.

In a surprise development, the Captain won out, though I confess part of me sided with the Vulcan. I've always found the theology of Star Trek thought-provoking.

Thought-provoking too is the factulation that, in the United Kingdom of England and the Other Bits, punters spend £12m of their easily earned cash every year on self-help books.

Now a leading loonologist says we've been wasting our money. Well, we know that. But that's hardly the point, is it? The point is that, for the duration of reading the book, we feel at least that we're doing something about our problem. And by "our problem" I mean life generally.

According to Prof Timothy D Wilson, author of The Surprising New Science of Psychological Change, the fact that there are so many self-help books on the market is proof that they don't work, which is a bit like saying: the fact that I keep playing football proves that I can't score goals. Though I accept that the analogy is utterly false.

Prof Wilson rightly has a go at geekery like The Secret, which says you just have to think about things to make them happen, though Rhonda Byrne, writer of that tome, could credibly say: "I thought about making a fast buck from writing a load of tosh - and it worked."

She said that she no longer needed glasses after imagining she had perfect eyesight, then wondered why she got no response from the hatstand she was telling this to.

Here's a secret: at least these books offer hope, even if it is based on delusion.

In that sense, they are no different from the hokum spouted by priests and ministers over the centuries.

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