Samuel Smiles, author of Self Help, published in 1859
You may have made some, or at least one, New Year's resolution, and purchased a self-help book to guide you through the initial periods of self improvement. Good luck--and may you have better luck than me!
Long ago, for example, 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, say 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 seem capable of understanding; I have read his books studiously and, I hope, to some benefit. 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." James Cummins, at James Cummins, Bookseller in Boston, has a privately printed 1890 edition for sale at $3000.00 that was previously owned by Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon's running mate in 1960 and our Ambassador to Vietnam during the war there.
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 recommends 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--we all wonder from time to time whether or not there's a self-help book out there for the utterly hapless helpless. If you run across it be sure to clue me in.