Can a Self-Help Book Really Change Your Life?

The genre promises easy fixes for intractable problems, but some conflicts can’t be solved by individuals alone: Your weekly guide to the best in books

Illustration of a red book with multiple sharp tools sticking out of it, resembling a Swiss Army knife
Getty; The Atlantic

As a genre, self-help books promise that fulfillment can be attained by sheer individual will. That offer is seductive, and in the midst of a global pandemic and public distress, many readers have stocked up on titles that foreground individual healing, such as Bessel van der Kolk’s ever in-demand The Body Keeps the Score. It can provide solace, Eleanor Cummins wrote in The Atlantic, but the book addresses only a specific kind of suffering: personal, psychological trauma. Some conflicts require different frameworks or communal responses.

In The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths, Anna Katharina Schaffner suggests that the way we view self-improvement can indicate how we relate to and think about helping one another. Guides that aim to streamline anti-racism, such as Robin DiAngelo’s Nice Racism, are best-selling products. But self-help books cannot replace support systems or stand in for accountability, Danzy Senna argues. Several of these books, written by and for white progressives, manage to be both self-deprecating and inadequately self-aware as they sell racial virtue.

If not now, when? Work smarter, not harder. God helps those who help themselves. Self-help literature is littered with stale truisms like these. They’re concise, but too generic to offer real guidance when jobs and relationships get complicated. Charles Duhigg tries to transcend these clichés in his book Smarter Faster Better by subtly addressing modern challenges to working efficiently. But his gospel of productivity still sounds troublingly conventional: He offers a weak balm for a culture that equates increased labor with a meaningful life.

The self-help genre is not new; Schaffner traces its origins to ancient China. In 19th-century America, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s philosophy of self-reliance was buttressed by the period’s many revolutions, which transformed the bounds of capitalism, travel, and national politics. Yet the bard of secular autonomy was never himself truly alone. A recent volume, The Transcendentalists and Their World, reveals how Emerson, along with Henry David Thoreau and their Concord neighbors, only aspired to individualism in theory. In reality, their families and communities were what rooted them and helped them grow.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

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What We’re Reading

Illustration of hand reaching out from a red book

Matt Chase

The self-help that no one needs right now

“In a moment of personal and collective crisis, the siren song of a self-help book is strong.”


Illustration of two stacked televisions

Getty; The Atlantic

When home improvement is self-improvement

“Asking for help, after all, runs counter to many of America’s most adamant myths: the moral superiority of self-sufficiency, the quiet dignity of suffering.”


Sculpture of thinking man sitting on a tiny desk

Illustration by Vahram Muradyan; images by Les Byerley / Shutterstock; QuartoMundo / CGTrader

Robin DiAngelo and the problem with anti-racist self-help

“The world these writers evoke is one in which white people remain the center of the story and Black people are at the margins, poor, stiff, and dignified, with little better to do than open their homes and hearts to white women on journeys to racial self-awareness.”


Man stands behind a semi-translucent clock

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

The limits of self-help productivity lit

“Self-help literature is a way of imagining personal triumph in the act of reading.”


Illustration of man whose face is replaced with a scene of birds in nature

Vedran Štimac

Emerson didn’t practice the self-reliance he preached

“Emerson’s extreme doctrine of individualism emerges in Gross’s account as an utter contradiction of the visible, practical interdependence of Concord life.”


About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Nicole Acheampong. The book she’s reading next is Petals of Blood, by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

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