Help Yourself: My Issues With Self-Help Books

Recently I’ve found myself reading a few self-help books, almost by accident. It’s a section I’ve always stayed away from, despite probably needing guidance to help my own self on many an occasion. Don’t get me wrong, if self-help books work for you, I think that’s great. You keep reading them. There’s a real trend for self-help books at the moment, too. In my job as a bookseller, I’m probably asked once a day for either Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret or Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. I’ve never read either, but apparently, they’re life-changing. But, for me, self-help books just seem to anger and annoy me. They repeat the same thing in almost every single paragraph and they promise absolute perfection. I mean, I know this approach was common in the 40s, but there’s a reason they’ve done away with rote learning, hun. Memorising facts and numbers doesn’t actually help you learn to be a well-rounded, problem-solving individual who takes responsibility for their own actions and embraces mistakes.

 

 

 

Matt Haig has just published his newest book, Notes On A Nervous Planet and, being a massive Matt Haig fan, I devoured it in a matter of days. The thing is though, if anybody other than Matt Haig had written this book, it would never have even entered my radar. And if it did, I’d probably have put it straight back down again. Whilst his first ‘self-help’ book was a lifeline for many suffering from mental illness, Notes On A Nervous Planet reads partly like a university essay and partly like the same idea regurgitated in slightly different formats in 8 chapters. The repetition I’m told, is a common quirk to self-help books, so this one I’m perhaps able to forgive. But the main problem is the incessant insertion of quotes from other people and the inability to make a coherent point. Yes, there are moments when Haig’s gift for storytelling shine through the murk – notably ‘A Note From The Beach (p.62) – but mostly it’s just ‘technology is fast and big’ and ‘the world makes us nervous’ and ‘stop using technology for a bit and you’ll feel better’ on a loop over and over and over again. I feel like this could have been a £1 non-fiction novella and I would have loved it. As a book, I hate how much it drags on – this coming from the girl who could have read a never-ending version of How To Stop Time or Reasons To Stay Alive or The Last Family In England.

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Anyway, I don’t want to dwell on Notes On A Nervous Planet. I’m still a major fan of Matt Haig, and I don’t like being this negative about his book. Let’s move on to somebody I’m not ashamed to rip limb from limb: Marie Kondo.

 

I’ve written a full review of Marie Kondo’s book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying >here< already, so I won’t go into too much detail here. But the same problems are rampant in her book, namely, needless and incessant repetition. Kondo goes one step further, and constantly refers to herself as having the ‘perfect’ life, and in doing so, constantly belittles the reader. To Haig’s credit, he’s always clear that the reason he writes Nervous Planet is to try to understand how to make life easier for himself. I have no doubt when he started this project that he knew any of the conclusions he comes to in the end. Kondo, however, comes across a little like she wrote this book to show off.

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Authors talking about their personal experience in a non-fiction book can be the missing ingredient that turns a good book into a great one. Take Michelle McNamara’s journalistic-memoir-cum-true-crime book I’ll Be Gone In The Dark that’s currently at the top of the bestsellers list, and has been for some weeks. Or, even, Haig’s own Reasons To Stay Alive that stayed in the bestsellers list for months on end. In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, however, Kondo tells us snippets from her childhood that never paint a happy or functional picture and seems to brag about her current life, and, inadvertently, her privilege at being a rich woman who has a flexible job and a strong sense of self-worth. There is no allowance for the 60%+ of people (certainly in Britain) who read her book and can’t relate to these luxuries. I mean, there’s a reason we’re buying a self-help book. We feel insecure enough about *something* already. Maybe don’t rub it in? Just a suggestion?

 

I don’t know. Maybe I’m being too harsh. As a personality trait, I massively dislike being given advice that I didn’t ask for, and both Haig and Kondo go off-piste frequently (Kondo more drastically, it must be said). I also get bored 500x quicker than the average person, so the repetition gets old REALLY quickly. On top of that, if anyone talks down to me, or presumes I can’t do something, it tends to send me into a full-blown, silent, seething rage.

Maybe I should never have tried self-help books in the first place.

 

Oops?

 

P.S. Here is proof that I love Matt Haig because look how starstruck and proud of myself I look having this photo taken with him. This moment was potentially the best moment of my life, I got to tell the author of the book that saved my life how much his book meant to me. (I also ply this book into my customers hands daily)

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