x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Adrift in a sea of self-help books

The grind of the 21st century throws up obstacles at every turn. Nikolaus Oliver is on hand with advice to guide you through. This week: swamped by the sea of self-help books.

The grind of the 21st century throws up obstacles at every turn. Nikolaus Oliver is on hand with advice to guide you through. This week: swamped by the sea of self-help books.

Anyone who is in touch with modern reality knows that you can't be expected to cope all on your own. The world is just too complicated and difficult. You are just too complicated and difficult. Guidance is on hand in the form of a vast and exponentially growing body of literature purporting to show you how to help yourself. It ranges from books containing more or less common sense to others that should be behind bars because they are so mad. There is even a literature on how to choose your self-help books - the making of such a choice obviously being out of our league.

Interestingly, this most modern phenomenon isn't. Modern that is. It is actually Victorian and owes its origins to a very clever Scotsman called Samuel Smiles. Published in 1859, his Self Help sold 20,000 copies in its first year alone (no wonder Samuel smiles!), proving that this form of literature was a market waiting to happen. In terms of its content, however, the book was less modern - as you quickly realise perusing his subsequent bestsellers Character (1871), Thrift (1875) and the blockbusting Duty, which rocked the bookshops in 1880.

By contrast, the modern self-help manual seems devoted to how you can get by without character, thrift or duty - aptly summed up by a friend of mine, who in all seriousness refers to them as "self-interest" books. Samuel Smiles took the view that we would all help ourselves best by imitating heroic British engineers, and he devoted the rest of his life to eulogising them in an unending series of biographies, growing prodigiously wealthy on the proceeds. Now that's what I call self-help.

The range of topics covered by self-help literature is vast. There's personal growth, and weight loss (the end of personal growth, as it were). There's how to improve your self-esteem; and - if that doesn't work - how to handle depression. There's how to conduct successful marital relations; and how to get along with the children that are likely to result from your success. (And, of course, there's how to survive the break-up if you fail at these last two.) Finally, there's what to do if you want to provide help to others but can't think how.

These books don't really deliver on their promise. If they did, the world should by now be well-adjusted, thin, fertile, happy and helpful. Yet we are addicted to the genre. We need a guide to living without self-help books.