SHELF AWARE BOOK REVIEW
The Self-Help Compulsion by Beth Blum
The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature by Beth Blum Samuel Beckett as a guru for business executives? James Joyce as a guide to living a good life? The notion of notoriously experimental authors sharing a shelf with self-help books might seem far-fetched, yet a hidden history of rivalry, influence, and imitation links these two worlds. In The Self-Help Compulsion, Beth Blum reveals the profound entanglement of modern literature and commercial advice from the late nineteenth century to the present day.
Published by Columbia University Press on January 28, 2020
Blum explores popular reading practices in which people turn to literature in search of practical advice alongside modern writers' rebukes of such instrumental purposes. As literary authors positioned themselves in opposition to people like Samuel Smiles and Dale Carnegie, readers turned to self-help for the promises of mobility, agency, and practical use that serious literature was reluctant to supply. Blum unearths a series of unlikely cases of the love-hate relationship between serious fiction and commercial advice, from Gustave Flaubert's mockery of early DIY culture to Dear Abby's cutting diagnoses of Nathanael West and from Virginia Woolf's ambivalent polemics against self-improvement to the ways that contemporary global authors such as Mohsin Hamid and Tash Aw explicitly draw on the self-help genre. She also traces the self-help industry's tendency to popularize, quote, and adapt literary wisdom and considers what it might have to teach today's university. Offering a new history of self-help's origins, appeal, and cultural and literary import around the world, this book reveals that self-help's most valuable secrets are not about getting rich or winning friends but about how and why people read.
Samuel Beckett as a guru for business executives? James Joyce as a guide to living a good life? The notion of notoriously experimental authors sharing a shelf with self-help books might seem far-fetched, yet a hidden history of rivalry, influence, and imitation links these two worlds. In The Self-Help Compulsion, Beth Blum reveals the profound entanglement of modern literature and commercial advice from the late nineteenth century to the present day.
A heady and intellectual perspective on the genre of self-help, this is a fascinating dive into the literary history of self-help books. I honestly thought this book was going to go a different direction but I’m so glad I was wrong! Blum describes how self-help and literary works have grown to complement each other, with more things in common than different. While this may sound quaint, what she’s really pointing to is understanding culture’s trends and use of self-help books and the knowledge gained from philosophy and literature over the past few centuries.
I love her take on the historical practice of self-help: a “Renaissance tradition of the commonplace book: a scrapbooks that assembled and recopied quotations for the personal use and was meant to ‘lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life’ “. I had never known how far back self-help books have gone and I loved reading the history of one of my favorite genres.
While not an easy read, this book is well worth the extra mental effort even if just to collect the dizzying list of books she refers to in the text. Blum applies an even hand and never sounds overly critical to either genre and masterfully illustrates what is useful and necessary from both worlds. I’ve never been so delighted by a notes and bibliography section: it’s a scholars dream TBR list.
I can see this book being used as a reference for a college class, and it’s perfect for any serious nonfiction book lover.
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