In Defense of Self-Help Books

I like to read self-help books. But I know a lot of people vehemently dislike them, and usually they have one or both of these two objections: that these books don’t ever offer anything new, they just repackage common sense concepts with new words; and that people who read the books spend more time reading new books than they do actually trying to make any of the changes that the books suggest.

I don’t necessarily think either of those objections are false, but I also don’t think they are enough reason to summarily reject this whole genre of books as being worthless.

I think the main reason I like reading this type of book is because I like thinking about how people think. Any book that delves into how the brain works, or how people are the same or how they are different holds a special interest for me. Mortimer Adler in How to Read a Book talks about the classic philosophical works as being accessible to the layman because we can all test the theses in them for ourselves. Self-help books are in the same vein, but deliberately written to be easily understood.

Some might argue that this is itself an objection to them, or at least a symptom of the dumbing down of our society, but I disagree. I think expressing things in simple terms is an art, and it’s one that requires a very fine degree of understanding of the subject. I find this in my homeschooling life embarrassingly often- when I can’t explain a math or science concept in sufficiently simple terms that my 6 year old can understand it, it’s a sign to me that my own grasp of it is not as complete as it needs to be.

I also don’t find the objection compelling that these books just repackage old, common-sense ideas with new vocabulary. We can go right back to Ecclesiastes with that argument, right? “There is nothing new under the sun.” But each author has their own spin on things – based on their unique experiences and background. And sometimes the right words can make an idea click for someone when it hadn’t before. New vocabulary can change the conversation and open the idea up to new groups of people – make common sense a little more common, so to speak.

And I do concede that I have often enough fallen prey to the idea that if I keep reading self-help books, one of them will eventually solve my problems for me. I know, in my rational mind, that I cannot read my way into a better life; but reading is fun! Still, even with that, I do find that each new book gives me a short burst of motivation, and I can usually get some project done that I’ve been procrastinating on after I’ve finished one.

Now, I’m not suggesting that if you don’t like self-help books, you go out and force yourself to read them. But if you do find them useful, maybe I’ve convinced you to not feel guilty about it?