Over at City Journal’s website, I have a piece up called “The Paperback Quest for Joy.” It ran in the fall print issue and is now available online. This feature (which is — warning! — lengthy) is both a history of the self-help genre, and a defense of it, with insights from current writers like Gretchen Rubin (of The Happiness Project), Alisa Bowman (of Project: Happily Ever After) and Christine Whelan (Generation WTF).
Some excerpts: “Just because there’s plenty to criticize doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty that’s worthwhile, too. As Gretchen Rubin points out, all branches of knowledge have their quacks: ‘When you have your astronomy, then you get your astrology—and we have our own astrologers in this neck of the woods.’ Nonetheless, ‘the greatest minds throughout history have thought about things like self-knowledge and self-control and how to live a good life. I don’t know why it’s now branded as snake-oil stuff.’ Even the most over-the-top books offer a real benefit: they encourage the virtue of self-examination. To read self-help is to take stock of one’s self and to ask what kind of life one wants to lead.”
And another one: “It’s very American to think that we can better our lives by picking and choosing from inspirational tomes that are available to anyone with a spare $20. We don’t believe that people who are rich, or who have steamy marriages, are fundamentally different from the rest of us. We believe that they have discovered some knowledge that is accessible to us as well. The fact that we choose our gurus according to who seems most compelling is also very American. We have no state religion, and few of us do things just because our great-grandparents did. We don’t listen to a village elder who tells us what the good life looks like. Instead, we construct it ourselves, from what we see of the world around us—and what we find at the bookstore.”
I enjoyed writing this one, and I hope you enjoy reading it!