Everybody can use a little help

Americans' love affair with self-improvement books shows no sign of letting up

Are you hoping to learn to manage your anger? Find your best colors? Deal with a difficult boss? Effectively train puppies?

If the answer to any of the above is yes, and your next impulse is to head to your local bookstore, don't expect to find much elbow-room in the self-help section. According to the American Booksellers Association in Tarrytown, N.Y., the market for such books reached $581 million in 1998, after rising every year since 1991.

Self-help historians say that from the days of Poor Richard's Almanack, Americans have been drawn to the pragmatism and optimism of writers who suggest the possibilities of improving human experience through a combination of information and advice. Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale have been strong sellers for decades.

But many of the hot sellers today have their own distinct flavor. Readers seem particularly fond of books that contain at least something of a spiritual undertone. And while some observers question whether perusing 240 pages of bulleted points and anecdotes will change a life, readers are nonetheless drawn to tomes that promise a nugget or two that will improve their outlook.

There are no signs that public fascination with the genre will recede anytime soon. "We will never slake our appetite for these books, anymore than we will stop asking advice from a friend," predicts Katie Parker, a retail book buyer for the Joseph Beth Group in Cincinnati.

The category as defined by booksellers is broader than the aisles of a Barnes & Noble superstore. Some of the books leaping most rapidly off the shelves deal with the more concrete areas of human experience. There are bestsellers aimed at everything from better financial management ("The Courage to Be Rich" by Suze Orman) to tidying up your drawers and closets ("Organizing from the Inside Out" by Julie Morgenstern). There is also the perennially popular "Complete Idiot's Guide to..." series, which steers readers through everything from planning a trip online to surviving a divorce.

For those with a more spiritual bent, books penned by writers like Stephen Covey ("Seven Habits of Highly Effective People") or Anthony Robbins ("Awaken the Giant Within") encourage the control of circumstances through a change of heart or mind.

Within this field, there are also burgeoning subcategories, points out Kendra Smith, a spokeswoman for Borders Group Inc. in Ann Arbor, Mich. She indicates the shift toward books tailored for women, a strong market for works that adapt bits of Eastern philosophies to Western lifestyles, and the popularity of African-American motivational writers like Ilanya Vanzant ("In the Meantime") and Keith Harrell ("Attitude is Everything").

Clearly there is a bit of a male-female divide when it comes to self-help books. Women are much heavier consumers of the genre, says Ms. Parker, who explains the gap as "a logical extension of the fact that men never ask for directions."

The dark side of the craze

Some commentators see something dark behind the current craze for books that purport to teach. In an era when traditional religious and family structures seem to be crumbling, the hunger for self-help books resembles a desperate plea for more-solid systems by which to navigate individual lives. A particular lure is that many of the most popular books are those promising to tackle serious problems - divorce, child-rearing, loss of all kinds - without rejecting a spiritual outlook.

"People right now are lost. They are confused, stressed out, over the edge," says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Given the country's current emotional climate, says Mr. Celente, there's an obvious reason such books sell: "People are desperate for help."

Jewelnel Davis, chaplain at Columbia University in New York, says she's noted the popularity of such books among her students. She thinks some are helpful, but wonders what the idea that a quick read can meet major needs says about life today.

"There's a hollow center to our culture, and I worry about that," Chaplain Davis says. "Our society has become much more complex. People think, 'For $29.95 I can find out what's wrong with me.' "

Are you really improved?

But do such books help? Does anyone really become more organized, straighten up a financial mess, revitalize a marriage, or change the course of a life on the strength of kernels gleaned between the covers of a paperback?

Or do most readers echo Wendy Gibson, an attorney living in Stow, Ohio? Ms. Gibson says she enjoyed Richard Carlson's "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff," but found that her efforts to incorporate his ideas into her lifestyle "had the normal half life of a New Year's resolution."

Clearly, there is useful material in many such books. In "The Authoritative Guide to Self-Help Resources in Mental Health," 2,500 psychologists rate a raft of self-help books and give a thumbs up to about two-thirds. Parker says her contact with customers convinces her that many find enduring benefit from such reading. "It's interesting to listen to customers making recommendations to one another," she says. "I've heard many pick up a book like [M. Scott Peck's] 'The Road Less Traveled' and say, 'This really turned my life around.' "

"The Road Less Traveled" - a classic spiritual guide, which came out in 1978 and has been one of the top sellers of all time - is one Parker particularly likes to cite. She says it imparts concepts that are simple but often elusive, such as the idea that life is difficult and encountering problems is part of growth.

In fact, simplicity is key to truly effective works, some say. "A successful self-help book is very easy to read, has bullets, gives you things to do," says Margaret Maupin, a buyer for The Tattered Cover, one of the largest US independent bookstores, located in Denver. She points to "How To Survive the Loss of a Love" (by Melba Colgrove Shelton and Peter McWilliams) and "The One-Minute Manager" (by Kenneth Blanchard) as examples of books that do more with less.

For some readers, taking away one useful concept from a book easily justifies the time and expense involved. Nancy Burwell, a salesperson living in Morristown, N.J., says reading "Selling to VITO," by Anthony Parinello, taught her a better way to start a sales call. "It's the only thing I remember from the book, but it proved really helpful," she says.

Tips vs. true wisdom

Some critics say sales tips are easily learned through self-help books, but weightier knowledge should be sought from better sources. "Some [authors] aren't trained enough to be helpful, and they might even be harmful," Davis says.

Other readers complain that the literature can be less than enlightening. One New York attorney says her efforts to better understand the men she dates by perusing works on male-female differences only led her to conclude that the search for a meaningful relationship was futile.

Yet many observers insist that a genuine search for answers to deeper questions must ultimately prove positive. James Fraser, dean of Northeastern University's school of education in Boston, says he experiences discomfort about the superficiality of some self-help literature. But, he says, "When I walk into a bookstore [and see all the self-help books], I say, 'Wow, something's going on in this country and this culture,' and overall I'm pleased with it."

*E-mail comments to marjorie@csmonitor.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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