"Heaven helps those who help themselves," wrote Samuel Smiles in 1859, a no-nonsense introduction to his straightforwardly titled publication, Self Help. Helping oneself, seeking self-improvement, striving to be better - these are noble instincts, grounded in and inspired by some of the most traditional and fundamental religious tenets. The Victorians enjoyed manuals of instruction, turning to the bookshelves for advice on business, diet and marriage, but Smiles could not have imagined the monsters that have since emerged from the Pandora's box of self-help, transmuted from a small publishing niche into a multi-billion dollar a year industry. It is unlikely he'd be smiling if he could.
Type "self help" into Amazon, and the resulting options could provide reading material for a small country. Nearly 80,000 titles are available, subdivided into categories ranging from the straightforward "motivational" to the slightly more specialist offerings of "handwriting analysis" and "inner child" (110 options in the latter category alone). There are reams of legitimate texts on nutrition, business management and romance that dispense no-nonsense practical advice, and can provide valuable emotional support to consumers. Successful, responsible self-help books offer the concentrated essence of what it is to read fiction - a private experience in which the reader identifies his own personal experience with the universal, learning in the safety of solitude that he is not alone.
But by far the most over-populated virtual shelf is that of "Personal Transformation" with 14,981 assorted tomes from which to choose, and it is this last sub-section that has cast such comparatively modest and quaint ambitions as "time management" into the shade.
Personal transformation, as a lower case concept, encompasses almost all categories of advice. We wish to be transformed into thinner, more successful, more sexually fulfilled people, and all of those aspirations are legitimate. But personal transformation in its latest form is rife with quackery. "The Law of Attraction" is at the core of almost all of these prevailing philosophies, albeit repackaged and accessorised differently by every guru, and has fast overtaken alternative philosophies.
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