As a genre, self-help books promise that fulfillment can be attained by sheer individual will. That offer is seductive, and in the midst of a global pandemic and public distress, many readers have stocked up on titles that foreground individual healing, such as Bessel van der Kolk’s ever in-demand The Body Keeps the Score. It can provide solace, Eleanor Cummins wrote in The Atlantic, but the book addresses only a specific kind of suffering: personal, psychological trauma. Some conflicts require different frameworks or communal responses.
In The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths, Anna Katharina Schaffner suggests that the way we view self-improvement can indicate how we relate to and think about helping one another. Guides that aim to streamline anti-racism, such as Robin DiAngelo’s Nice Racism, are best-selling products. But self-help books cannot replace support systems or stand in for accountability, Danzy Senna argues. Several of these books, written by and for white progressives, manage to be both self-deprecating and inadequately self-aware as they sell racial virtue.
If not now, when? Work smarter, not harder. God helps those who help themselves. Self-help literature is littered with stale truisms like these. They’re concise, but too generic to offer real guidance when jobs and relationships get complicated. Charles Duhigg tries to transcend these clichés in his book Smarter Faster Better by subtly addressing modern challenges to working efficiently. But his gospel of productivity still sounds troublingly conventional: He offers a weak balm for a culture that equates increased labor with a meaningful life.
The self-help genre is not new; Schaffner traces its origins to ancient China. In 19th-century America, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance was buttressed by the period’s many revolutions, which transformed the bounds of capitalism, travel, and national politics. Yet the bard of secular autonomy was never himself truly alone. A recent volume, The Transcendentalists and Their World, reveals how Emerson, along with Henry David Thoreau and their Concord neighbors, only aspired to individualism in theory. In reality, their families and communities were what rooted them and helped them grow.
Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.
When you buy a book using a link in this newsletter, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.
What We’re Reading
“In a moment of personal and collective crisis, the siren song of a self-help book is strong.”
Getty; The Atlantic
“Asking for help, after all, runs counter to many of America’s most adamant myths: the moral superiority of self-sufficiency, the quiet dignity of suffering.”
Illustration by Vahram Muradyan; images by Les Byerley / Shutterstock; QuartoMundo / CGTrader
“The world these writers evoke is one in which white people remain the center of the story and Black people are at the margins, poor, stiff, and dignified, with little better to do than open their homes and hearts to white women on journeys to racial self-awareness.”
Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
“Self-help literature is a way of imagining personal triumph in the act of reading.”
“Emerson’s extreme doctrine of individualism emerges in Gross’s account as an utter contradiction of the visible, practical interdependence of Concord life.”
Comments, questions, typos? Reply to this email to reach the Books Briefing team.
Did you get this newsletter from a friend? Sign yourself up.