Friday, June 19, 2009

Help Yourself: Are You Addicted to Self-Help Books?

Liesl Schillinger has a guilty pleasure. Or better, she has a guilty addiction. Drawn into it against her will, she cannot shake her attachment to self-help books. Link here.

Self-help books. Advice Manuals. Books that offer tactics for dealing with life situations. Schillinger is hooked to them.

The educated elite, the cognoscenti, look down on people who read such things. They scorn the trite pieces of pseudo-wisdom such books offer. They prefer, as Schillinger suggests, to glean true wisdom from the great works of literary fiction.

Why waste your time with "The Rules" when you can bask in the glow of Jane Austin or George Eliot? Or better, why repair guiltily to the self-help aisle at Borders when you can undergo psychotherapy.

Therapy that wants to touch the depths of your psyche its goal will try to connect your mundane existence with the great myths and legends of the past. And this does not only apply to Freud.

If your life is a fiction writ large, then your goal will be to keep reading, the better to discover how it turns out. If you take a self-help book at your guide, Schillinger implies, you will have a say in the as-yet indeterminate outcome.

Say what you will about the authors of "The Rules," but they did not see dating as a romantic fiction. They saw it as a game, with players and rules. They wanted women to learn how better to play the game.

For which they have been roundly denounced as suburban housewives.

If you believe in true love and are waiting to be carried off on a gauzy cloud of rapture, there is something slightly offensive about the notion that dating and relationships are games.

But if you get involved in a game where you do not know the rules and the code, you are likely to become a pawn in someone else's game. And it will feel like you are part of a drama.

Examine a eye-opening piece of advice that Schillinger gleaned from an eighty-year old book entitled: "The Technique of the Love Affair." The line that struck her was: "It is desirable for the happiness and well-being of a woman that she should be frequently, or at any rate constantly, pursued."

Of course, she cannot be pursued if she does not know how to play the game. The book does not offer a course in how to make your sentimental attachments feel like Anna Karenina's.

People who hate the notion of making love into a game tend to aim for complete openness and honesty. And yet, if you make your heart an open book, or wear your heart on your sleeve, this will greatly decrease the likelihood that you will be constantly pursued. Why pursue something that does not have a whiff of mystery.

Self-help books offer different possible moves for different games. They point the reader toward the game, invite him or her to define a strategy and then to go out to do what is necessary to actualize it.

No one should feel embarrassed to read self-help books. Yet, our therapy culture has marginalized them, put them off to the side, consigned them to the illiterati... those who cannot grasp the large ideas or do not want their lives to be world class psychodramas.

The therapy culture wants to make your life into fodder for fiction. It cares little whether you are a success, whether you are a person of good character, or whether you achieve your goals. What matters is that your life becomes a great story.


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It can't really have effect, I think this way.

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