Time once was that the self-help book was the dysfunctional cousin on publishing's family tree. The first was said to be published in 1859 (Semuel Smiles' book, Self Help), but the genre only hit its stride 100 years later. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, however, the self-help section of the bookshop was an area to be entered furtively, and with a healthy dose of scepticism. With their long-winded titles (Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask) the books promised much, and delivered little.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, there was a new focus on the self. The books went from being the sole preserve of gurus to a weapon of choice for ambitious dynamos who were simply feeling a little directionless.
Today, however, the self-improvement industry is said to be worth $11 billion in the US alone. It’s estimated in the UK that self-help has earned publishers £75 million in the past five years.
This is partly to do with a new focus on addressing mental-health challenges, and optimising the self. We now know we can change the way we think and feel – that in failure and catastrophe, there is learning and growth to be found. What's more, many of them are insightful, engaging and helpful: the benefits of therapy at a fraction of the cost. They're more personable, too: fuelled by the successes of Caitlin Moran and Nora Ephron, we now have the memoir-slash-self-help book.
So which ones are worth the hype and worth checking out? And which classics did a blessed sidestep away from schmaltz?
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed (Atlantic Books)
Cheryl Strayed's now-defunct Dear Sugar column (on The Rumpus website) was chicken soup for the heartsick. By turns sage, gentle and no-nonsense, Strayed answered fragile readers' questions on everything from relationships and family to self-loathing. The resulting collection of columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, is brimful of empathy, showing readers how to practise self-love and to hold compassion for others.
Leap In by Alexandra Heminsley (Penguin Random House)
Fitness manuals are often deathly boring: running ones, doubly so. Yet Alexandra Heminsley wrote one to masterful effect: Running Like A Girl charted her arduous journey from couch potato to marathon runner. And here, she writes of her desire to become an open-air swimmer. To conquer fears, to become not just good at swimming, but at one with the water. To not just survive, but thrive.
“I wanted to dive into water as I want to dive into life,” she writes. “Filled with joy, curiosity, and the knowledge that though there might be dangers, they aren’t daunting enough to make it not worth doing.” The second section of the book sees Heminsley offer advice and recommendations on sea swimming, from buying goggles and staying warm(ish) to breathing and tracking devices.
If this doesn't appeal, the heart-breaking, darkly humorous and inspirational I Found My Tribe by Ruth Fitzmaurice is an uplifting, swimming-inspired alternative.
The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron (Macmillan)
Hailed by millions of would-be creatives since its publication in 1992, Cameron’s book works as a manual on how to unlock creativity, gain self-confidence and harness creative impulses. Among its most enduring instructions is the ‘Morning Pages’ (or simply writing first thing in the morning). Not for nothing was the book eventually put into the Self-Publishing Hall of Fame after selling millions of copies worldwide.
Sleep Your Way To The Top (and Other Myths About Business Success) by Jane Miller (Sterling Books)
Despite its potentially off-putting title, Miller’s workplace survival guide has become a hit since its 2014 release. And in a year of stories about workplace harassment, Miller’s book now seems hugely prescient. Aimed primarily at millennials, this is a survival guide for every type of workplace blooper, from what to do if your boss invites you into a jacuzzi to how to survive the office Christmas party with minimal blowback.
Anxiety for Beginners by Eleanor Morgan (Bluebird books)
The market is positively overflowing with books on how to manage anxiety, but Morgan’s sits a cut away from the rest. The journalist recalls having her first panic attack in school; one minute, she was learning biology, the next, she felt as though “death became a certainty”. Morgan has spent the ensuing years managing her anxiety disorder and here she weaves personal experience with plenty of research. The result is an authoritative, absorbing read.
The Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes (Simon & Schuster)
The name 'Shonda Rhimes' might not be a household one here in Ireland (yet), but in the US, Rhimes is the popular creator and producer of some great TV (Grey's Anatomy). Vowing to kick her social anxiety and introversion into touch, Rhimes decided to say yes to everything that scared her in life. Funny, wise and relatable, with a sweetening dash of Hollywood glamour.
The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying by Marie Kondo (Vermilion Books)
No one likes to be told to get rid of their prized possessions, and in this respect, decluttering Marie Kondo takes no prisoners. If you have five blue jumpers, bin all but one. Don’t hang onto anything material that elicits anything less than sheer joy. Sounds brutal, particularly for sentimental types, but there’s a reason the name of the woman they call the ‘Beyoncé of decluttering’ has now become an actual verb. “I’ve just KonMari’d my wardrobe,” a whole raft of women are suddenly proclaiming. Her disciples have indeed reported life-changing results, and not just in their wardrobes.
The Rules by Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider (Piaktus)
Even on its first publishing run in the '90s, The Rules seemed curiously retrograde. At the zenith of ladette culture, this dating manual suggested women dial it right back to the '50s, and call to mind the mannerisms of more genteel ladies. Ergo, no calling, no paying on dates, no talking too much, no chasing, playing hard to get. In 2014, The New Rules was published, with dos and don'ts for dating for the digital generation. And in a dating climate that's as mercurial as it is cut-throat, people will take any advice they can get. Still, there has to be something to it: Beyoncé has credited The Rules for her courtship, and eventual marriage to Jay-Z.
The Complete Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook by Joshua Piven and David Borgenicht (Chronicle books)
What this book lacks in spiritual enlightenment, it more than makes up for with the practical advice you thought you’d never need. Yet it’s only when you read about how to deliver a baby in the back of a taxi, surviving quicksand and mastering awkward lift silences that you realise just how handy a book like this could come in. Some day.