Confessions of a Self-Help Book Reader
Captivated by Moore's antique Realpolitik on the battle of the sexes, I proposed an essay to my editors at The New York Times. The piece appeared on Valentine's Day. "At last," I wrote, "a self-help book for women who don't need help, not for women who are past it."
Then the phone began to ring. My friends wanted to be walked through The Technique. (They already had The Rules.) I lent my marked-up book to one friend; she kept it. I bought another, and soon lent that out as well (it also failed to find its way back to my library). I am currently on my sixth copy. Later that year, my editors called. Would I review a book called A General Theory of Love, on the neurological basis of romance? I was leery of falling into a "love" beat. I wanted to write on general, gender-neutral subjects. Would writing about relationship books twice in 12 months pigeonhole me?
But A General Theory of Love beguiled me. Like Moore's book, it was written in an artful literary style—the authors began their explanation of the workings of the limbic brain by reaching back to Pascal's Pensées. See? Not for ninnies. Also, my postdivorce relationship had just ended, and I was soothed by the doctors' news. The brain forges neural pathways in response to anyone you love, they explained. Over time, the pathways are reinforced by repeat exposure, and before long, tributary associations begin to connect with the main path, deepening and expanding its tracks. Their message was clear: To haul yourself out of the limbic rut of a lost love, you must forge new neural paths with new people. This insight was useful. It also helped explain why my friends and I had found it so difficult in the past to shake memories of previous relationships. Even when you want to forget, the limbic brain remembers. Sheepishly recalling the cocky essay I'd written about Cypria and Saccharissa, and the people who "don't need help...," I thought to myself, "Now, just who might that be?"
I had always shunned self-help section in bookstores, but my respect for the wisdom in those two books began to erode my suspicion of the genre. When a friend confided to me that she was enduring a rending crisis with her parents and siblings, I went online, plugged in some of her concerns, and found a relevant book called How You Can Survive When They're Depressed. Walking to my local Barnes & Noble, I mumbled the title to the clerk, afraid of being overheard. He directed me to the proper section. Once there, I looked around furtively to make sure no friends were nearby—being seen would have felt like being spotted in a particularly sordid aisle of an adult boutique. Spying the title, I whisked it under my elbow and hustled it to the register. My friend loved the book. It lacked the lyricism of the bellwether titles that had lured me and had none of the style of the 19th- and 20th-century novels that paint such a detailed map of human woes. But my friend was not a character marching through a predetermined series of imagined events; she was a real person who needed up-to-date strategies to address problems no novelist could resolve.
This is not to say that I am a complete convert. As a critic, I read a number of books a week, nearly all of them literary novels, biographies, or books of social commentary. A self-help book makes it into the mix perhaps once a month. But two years ago, I became a columnist for the Styles section of the Times, reviewing books on lighthearted, provocative, or glamorous subjects that fit the Styles brief. As word went out to publicists, shipments of unsolicited books, many of them volumes of self-help, began to land on my doorstep. Reader, I read them.