Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 14 October 2019

Forget self-help books – literature will change your life

In contrast to simplistic guidebooks that claim to hold the key to happiness, the best literature helps us to understand the causes and the universality of our neuroses

Self-help books are often linear and simplistic, while literature drills down into why we behave the way we do. Alamy 
Self-help books are often linear and simplistic, while literature drills down into why we behave the way we do. Alamy 

The other day, I popped into the vast Kinokuniya bookstore in Dubai Mall. I was looking for a short story collection by the Canadian writer Alice Munro, but accidentally ended up in the self-help section, from which I didn’t emerge for at least three-quarters of an hour. Mostly, this is because I was lost among the dozens of groaning shelves. Every time I tried to retrace my steps, I seemed to bump into another pile of books that promised to make my life better but were, in fact, just making me late.

After a while, I calmed down – there was a book to help with that – and started flicking through some of the titles. Remember This When You’re Sad by Maggie Van Eijk, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, I Can Make You Thin by Paul McKenna, and my favourite, How Not to Die by Michael Greger and Gene Stone – I can only assume the publishers of that particular title have an excellent team of in-house lawyers.

Apparently, we are reading more self-help books than ever before. Recently released figures show that, in the UK alone, three million of the things were sold last year, a rise of 20 per cent on 2017. My experience in Kinokuniya, though only anecdotal, suggests that the appetite for self-improvement is just as strong in the UAE.

Self-help books promise a quick fix. The problem with quick fixes, though, is that they tend to fail

The reasons for this are no doubt complex, but I’d suggest the spike in sales has a lot to do with readers seeking reassurance and guidance in uncertain times. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by climate change, say, or horrified by the rise of the far right, at least you can focus on improving something closer to home: yourself. Social media, meanwhile, has allowed us to compare ourselves, almost constantly and generally negatively, to our peers. . The problem with quick fixes, though, is that they tend to fail.

In fact, if you really are seeking salvation between the covers of a book, you’d be much better off heading for the literature section. Unlike self-help books, which tend to offer a linear, overly simplistic view of the world (“Feeling shy? Well, be more confident, then”), great novels get to the nub of why people behave the way they do. By helping us to understand the causes of our neuroses, as well as illustrating how universal they tend to be, the best novelists can stimulate a period of introspection. This is often painful but it is also the only starting point for change.

So rather than reading a self-help book such as The Power of Not Caring by Grace Scott, which attempts to persuade the reader that, among other things, the pursuit of money will not guarantee happiness, you’d be much better off with Tom Wolfe’s stinging satire of Wall Street, The Bonfire of the Vanities, or Martin Amis’s Money, which sends up the excesses of capitalism uproariously.

Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd has far more to say about the debilitating effects of shyness than any self-help book, while Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf will give comfort to those battling against outsider status and feelings of social anxiety. More recently, Anuradha Roy’s All the Lives We Never Lived reminds us why we must escape a stifling existence and seek new adventures.

Poetry, too, can provide philosophical nourishment and galvanise you into action. In 2017, the British philanthropist William Sieghart published a beautiful collection titled The Poetry Pharmacy: Tried-and-True Prescriptions for the Heart, Mind and Soul. The premise is simple: Mr Sieghart prescribes a different poem for a variety of problems, including inertia, regret and bereavement.

In his introduction to the section on stagnation, for which Mr Sieghart recommends The Trees by Philip Larkin, he writes: “It’s easy to forget sometimes that however old we are, we still have the capacity to grow. This poem is a reminder that it’s never too late to bud, bloom and flourish; that winter only lasts as long as we allow it to.”

That might sound like classic self-help fluff, but then come Larkin’s words. The poem concludes with the lines: “Yet still the unresting castles thresh/ In fullgrown thickness every May. / Last year is dead, they seem to say, / Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.”

In this single stanza, he captures universal feelings of despair and, more importantly, frees up the mind to see that there is a way out. Isn’t that what every self-help book is trying to do?

Long before Sheryl Sandberg was telling women to Lean In or Eckhart Tolle was preaching about The Power of Now, novelists and poets have created works to guide us through the knotty thickets of life. Their words have survived for centuries and hold the answers to the crises we encounter today. All we need now, I suppose, is a novel that can help us to lose a bit of weight.

Updated: April 15, 2019 06:17 PM

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