In time for new year resolutions, a cultural historian chooses some of the best guides to making a better life, dating back to some of our earliest literature
It is easy to dismiss self-help books and those who read them. But not only do we need serious self-help, we must also take self-help more seriously. Valued at $11bn (£8bn) worldwide, self-help is a major global industry. It both reflects and generates many of our prevailing ideas about the self and about the cultures in which we live. The self-help industry not only seeks to shape the way in which we think, feel and behave, but also provides many of the core metaphors on which we rely to talk about our inner lives. Many of those metaphors, not least that of the mind as a computer that might require reprogramming, are at best unhelpful.
Critics of self-help believe that its current popularity is part of an all-pervasive neoliberal imperative to maximise efficiency. They see it as a sinister plot to direct all responsibility for our wellbeing back upon ourselves. Self-help, they feel, casts all our problems as personal, and our failures as owing to a lack of willpower and resilience, when they are in fact caused by the politics of capitalism. But while this may be true of some self-help, the idea of self-improvement has a long and rich history, extending back to ancient wisdom traditions. The wish to improve ourselves is bound up with our need for self-knowledge, for mastery and for transformation. It is a timeless desire and an essential part of what makes us human.