Unless one has an expansive definition for the term "self-help," my bookstore is largely deficient in that category of book. This is foolish on my part since they are popular and folks buy them at a good clip. But my colleague at Gazebo Books in Eureka Springs carries many self-help titles and is probably better prepared than I am to help customers pick one out. I think this lets me off the hook, especially since I have never been able to benefit from organized instruction and am the last person to help weigh the merits of one of popular culture's many advice givers against another's.
Long ago I followed a romantic impulse and signed up for lessons to learn how to dance the Two Step. It didn't work out. And it never will. I might as well have tried to become a Victoria's Secret runway model. Naturally then, the challenge of following a Twelve Step self-help program seems utterly complicated and well beyond the Two Step Failure that I am. Not to put too fine a point on it, Twelve Step programs are at least eleven steps over my head.
Marcus Aurelius is the one advice giver I am capable of understanding, and I stock his books with enthusiasm. His self-help book, Meditations, is a compendium of homely admonitions to keep your nose clean, and to avoid judging other people. He said, "Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good." That, I get.
That most brilliant and archetypical of Americans, Ben Franklin, wrote one of the first non-church sponsored self-help books, Poor Richard's Almanac. We all grew up hearing "early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise," and I suppose we have all been edified by it. The Franklin homily I like is "power to the bold and heaven to the virtuous." Another colleague, James Cummins at James Cummins, Bookseller in Boston, has a privately printed 1890 edition for sale at $300.00 that was previously owned by Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon's running mate in 1960 and our Ambassador to Vietnam during the war there. Are you tempted to step up to the plate?
One of my old philosophy profs believed that the only things worth talking about (in order of importance) are God, sex, power, and money. Interestingly enough, the great bulk of self-help books fall into one or more of those categories and quixotically if not haphazardly recommend strategies for attaining thinness, sexiness, wealth, sainthood, etc. that combine equal and simultaneous applications of both boldness and virtuousness. This is the point where things fall all apart since I can be bold, and I can be virtuous, but not at the same time. On the upside, I can be one or the other while poor Henry Cabot Lodge could be neither bold nor virtuous. Hence Vietnam.
Walker Percy, one of my favorite writers, wrote Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. Before you race in to buy it let me tell you that there is no help, self or otherwise, within its pages. It is, for Mr. Percy, an unexpectedly sour book that more or less reports his doom, my doom, and your doom because of the meaninglessness of modern culture and our endorsement of it. For example, he recommends suicide, and not facetiously. He writes, "For the person who endlessly complains and thinks out loud about killing himself, I can only say, "Well, life isn't for everyone"."
Generally speaking--an adverbial phrase, by the way, first popularized by G.K. Chesterton--I know that every bookseller is deficient in at least one category of literature. Some of us simply and emptily promise customers that we will make amends, others blow the deficiency off, and still others make a genuine effort to seek out the missing link. I suspect that I will always avoid stocking romance novels, strive mightily and ultimately fail (as do almost all booksellers) to keep better editions of Kerouac and Graham Greene on the shelves, and sometimes hit, but mostly miss, keeping self-help titles up to date and up to speed. Is there a self-help book out there for the hapless helpless?