By The Book


Books -aren't they great? They give us pleasure (Cats in Shoes), they gather dust (War and Peace), they make effective if rudimentary weapons (Don Quixote), they provide an attractive addition to an open fire (P.S I Love You), they tell us how to live (The Road Less Travelled, Men Are From Mars etc), and occasionally they stimulate our brain-lobes (Philosophical Investigations), showing us what wondrous possibilities the human mind can explore.

But their main function increasingly appears to be a 'helpful' one, to take us by the hand and lead us soiling ourselves and dribbling through the day. Deepak Chopra only knows how we'd previously gotten so far without them.


Whether it's telling you how to have, or indeed, bring up your children, how to conduct a relationship, how to get a job, how to build a semi-detached energy efficient purple house, or just how to make a decent butternut squash and paperclip lasagne, you'd be mad, it seems, to attempt to leave your home in the morning without first double-checking a house-leaving manual in order to figure out the most appropriate technique.


From motivational and business gurus, all the way through to full-blown Mind, Body and Spirit style swill about psychic guardian angel mediums who do magic tricks while writing the Bible backwards, there's so much help out there it's difficult to imagine why we ever encounter unwarranted problems at any stage in life.

Your average self-help tome aims to help you through a range of complex difficulties some people like to refer to as 'life', although it's possible they just don't appreciate the special issues that contemporary living brings, requiring as they do such continuous reassurance.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that the real function served by these books is giving people unconditional permission to self-obsess, and that total self-absorption is a perfectly reasonable pastime.

The Formula

It goes something like this: the book is called Yes It's A Problem, Now Deal With It And Get On With Your Life:

Have you ever gone to the supermarket only to find that they've run out of milk? Maybe you sometimes get stuck in traffic on the way to work? Wonder why these things happen? You're about to find out. And no, it's not just life, it's not just the kind of thing that happens to everyone once in a while. It's you, there's something wrong with you, and I'm going to help you to sort it out, because that's just the kind of person I am.

Chapters: A Chill Wind Blows Through The Ear Of Doubt, and so on.

What's really going on often seems to be the act of convincing people that they have problems, and that these problems can only be solved by very specific techniques, except that the techniques don't actually solve the problems, they perpetuate them.


Now it can't go unnoticed that the vast majority of products targeted at the self-help market are clearly aimed at women. Take diet books as an example. Firstly there's the fact that most diets don't work. It isn't insanely paranoid to point out that it wouldn't really be in the interests of the diet industry for the diets to actually work in the long term.

Why are women such popular targets? Maybe because our collective insecurities are clear; we tend to be open when it comes to the fear of being alone, as well as our obsession with appearance. Insecurity is what the self-help industry thrives on, hence the number of relationship books.

Too Many Choices

The problem seems, superficially at least, that we have too much freedom, but this is a deceptive impression. In times past we had religion and strict social order extending to all areas of life to keep us in check, but the twentieth century bestowed upon us a huge amount of personal freedom which is great, except we don't really seem to want it, it requires decision making.

So we absorb ourselves in anything other than being in the here and now. You know, the place where you learn "life skills". Instead we opt for the consumerist fantasy, and when unforeseen circumstances arise, i.e. anything other than the perfect, entirely fictional life we see on TV, we look for instructions (typically either by Googling it or buying a book).

In fact, these books only serve to further restrict us, asserting the notion that our own intuitive decisions and judgements are not adequate, making us feel dependent on something mysterious outside of ourselves just to get by.

It's Not All Bad

The good news about this intellectual prison though is that there is a way out, and it involves the very items being employed to keep us in a state of ignorance: books. The best way to free ourselves is to keep reading, give our brains some exercise - just be sure to pick up the right ones.

Look for those volumes that ask more questions than they purport to answer. Embrace uncertainty, It is, after all, the only thing we can be certain of.


Hint 1: Avoid anything that has, as its title, an entire sentence, particularly if it's a question (If I'm So Great Then Why Do People Point, Laugh and Throw Things At Me?)

Hint 2: Don't buy anything written by someone who has obviously changed their name to something silly (e.g. Marjorie Guardian or Sadie Trust).