Self help books are an essential part of the fabric of American capitalism. In defiance of all the evidence showing an increasingly sclerotic system of accumulated hereditary advantage, self help books offer millions the compelling illusion that wealth and success is a personal choice. Whether this is true for any given individual is largely irrelevant. The fact that the culture perceives it to be true, and that sufficient self-certifying examples can be found, has been enough to establish the genre as a powerful cultural force.
Self help literature is a quintessentially American art form, since it developed in a pioneer nation whose founders had taken the ultimate step in personal reinvention, namely emigrating thousands of miles across a cruel ocean to face uncertain prospects in a strange new land. In a very real sense, because being “American” was originally a choice (for white Europeans at least), and because the frontier offered bountiful opportunity, the fat of the land was arguably there for the taking. In a pioneer context, the causal highway was strong indeed between action and reward, between Weber’s “Protestant work ethic” and the consequential material blessing. Failure was inexplicable and inexcusable in a land that, in contrast to the oppressed, famine-ridden nations of Ireland and eastern Europe, was practically dripping in milk and honey.
American individualism and its archetypes, from cowboy to astronaut to Silicon Valley millionaire, resonate powerfully with the notion that individuals can be architects of their own destiny. Self help books are usually designed as short cuts or signposts to this brave new frontier, offering a clutch of techniques, affirmations or beliefs that will accelerate the reader towards this bright horizon. The dominant myth of Western political thinking is that of the self-creating human being, propelling him or herself from log cabin to White House, in a sheer triumph of the personal will.
The very best self help books encapsulate the fragility and endless possibilities of the American dream. They are a useful antidote to the natural human tendency to ascribe excessive value to the known over the unknown, the comfortable, safe and familiar over the risky and potentially transformational. One of the most sublime and challenging is surely Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers, which acted as a wake-up call to millions of women trapped by sub-optimal life choices. A left-field but fascinating masculine counterpart is Unleash the Warrior Within by Richard Machowicz. This chronicles the mental resilience of a US Navy SEAL who achieved intense self discipline and overcame daunting physical and psychological challenges, even while millions of his peers must have languished in dead-end suburban lives.
The very best personal development works are therefore part homily, part confessional and part fantasy. They tap into to some of the most basic human desires enshrined in Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” and, like Hollywood films, offer an exhilarating if transient glimpse into a different world. Self help books may be mocked by the intelligentsia, but they are an enduring form of American art that reveal volumes about the society and economic model they support.