Cover Image: The Self-Help Compulsion

The Self-Help Compulsion

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Member Reviews

This was a such a fun and interesting look at the self help industry. I am definitely possessed of the same compulsion, to want to constantly be improving. Looking high and low for that one book, that one method, that will change my life. This really put that drive into perspective for me,
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The Self-Help Compulsion gives an indepth look at the history of the Self-Help movement. This isn't an easy read - it text and information dense and it took me a long time to get through. There is lots of interesting information there though.
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The Self Help Compulsion: Searching For Advice In Modern Literature (2020), written by Beth Blum is a highly interesting exploration of the Self Help genre. Blum illustrates how theme based advice, motivational, inspirational, “How-To” books were absorbed into the Cultural Studies genre, that promoted formal academic research supporting the ideology and blending of self-help in contemporary readership and literature. Beth Blum is the assistant professor of English at Harvard University.

The genre of self-help is fueled by insecurity, fear and anxiety: likely due to these reasons, the genre is frequently denounced and mocked by some critics or regarded as psycho-babble, junk science etc. The evidence of popularity and demand for bestselling self- improvement titles can’t be underestimated (particularly when written by a celebrity). The fact is, as readers desire the possibility to improve their lives-- the individual value of self-improvement is impossible to accurately define and measure.  Also, another debatable topic is: “Does self-help actually work?” as the “secrets” of self-help were explored further in the book. 

Blum narrated a colorful historical perspective of how the earliest forms of self-help advice originated in medieval times when the scarcity of books for the general public led to the circulation of hand copied newspapers, tracts, pamphlets etc. This practice continued into the Renaissance period. American Founding Father Benjamin Franklin (1706-90) was among the first to promote the principles of “virtuous living” in the Pennsylvania Chronicle. The masterpiece book: “Self Help” (1859-) written by Scottish philosopher Samuel Smiles (1802-1904), contended that the misfortune of poverty could be converted to a blessing with the practice of vigorous self-help.  This book was translated into numerous languages including Persian and Arabic and continues to inspire many authors and readers alike since publication.
The stressful turn of the 19th century fostered a “therapeutic ethos” and “new thought” that was  combined with self-help ideology.  Readers were commended for the serious study of self- improvement instead of novels and/or science fiction.  A.A. Brill translated Freud for academic studies (1909): Freud’s darker theories regarding human sexuality and desire led to a greater acceptance of psychoanalysis.  The Great Gatsby (1925-) opened with fatherly advice to a son. Nietzsche apparently agreed with the importance of paternal advice and observed: “if one didn’t have a good father, then it was necessary to invent one.”  Curiously, Blum noted that the paternal advice themes were absent in the fiction of Mohsin Hamid and Junot Diaz. 

It was particularly notable that  the themes of self-help in contemporary fiction and non-fiction are often directed towards women, although TED talks, podcasts, media feeds etc. are created for everyone, sometimes on a  professional or commercial level.  This book was factual, researched and written well, despite the BIG words and passages where it was necessary to keep a dictionary handy. **With thanks and appreciation to Colombia University Press via NetGalley for the DDC for the purpose of review.
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A heady and intellectual perspective on the genre of self-help, this is a fascinating dive into the literary history of self-help books.  I honestly thought this book was going to go a different direction but I'm so glad I was wrong!  Blum describes how self-help and literary works have grown to complement each other, with more things in common than different.  While this may sound quaint, what she's really pointing to is understanding culture's trends and use of self-help books and the knowledge gained from philosophy and literature over the past few centuries.  I love her take on the historical practice of self-help: a "Renaissance tradition of the commonplace book: a scrapbooks that assembled and recopied quotations for the personal use and was meant to 'lay up a fund of knowledge, from which we may at all times select what is useful in the several pursuits of life' ".  I had never known how far back self-help books have gone and I loved reading the history of one of my favorite genres. 
While not an easy read, this book is well worth the extra mental effort even if just to collect the dizzying list of books she refers to in the text. Blum applies an even hand and never sounds overly critical to either genre and masterfully illustrates what is useful and necessary from both worlds.  I've never been so delighted by a notes and bibliography section: it's a scholars dream TBR list.
I can see this book being used as a reference for a college class, and it's perfect for any serious nonfiction book lover.
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Let me start by saying what this book is not. This book is not your typical self-help book. If you are looking for advice about life this may not be the book for you. However, if you are looking for an inquiry into the evolution of self help books this book will provide a wealth of information. 

Moreover, I also felt that this is a dense read. Many of the words and phrases used here are academic and not relatively easy to understand. 

Nevertheless, this book will appeal to its intended audience.
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This book was very informative on the phenomenon that is Self-Help literature.  I can see this book being incredibly useful in modern Communication or Literature classes because the subject matter is fascinating. The history behind why self-help books are so popular and how the books have changed really made me think about the subject a lot more. Great informative read. Definitely not a light read at all.
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The Self-Help Compulsion is a dense history of self-help.It is not a quick easy read. It has some interesting information.
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The book is dense reading.

It mentions a lot of different concepts about the self-help industry and how the genre started. A lot of times, you may have felt that the genre is very repetitive or there's nothing new here. Now you can go back and read about how it all started, the ancient books as well as the authors and what they intended.

Lots of ideas are repeated in the genre but most of them are timeless and can carry through the ages.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley.
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A look at the history of the self help industry / genre. Primary text and images help the author. A look how it has changed and grown. Good if wanting to know more on its history.
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This is the history of self-help with stories, photos, and lots of well research info. This will appeal to a narrow audience. If you're seeking self-help, this will not help you. If you want to see how it evolved you're in the right place.

I really appreciate the NetGalley advanced copy for review!!
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***Thanks to the publisher and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review***

This book was a little dense and hard for me to get into, but I appreciate the message and the wonderful use of literature throughout.
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This book has an interesting and intense concept. It took me a while to get into it. There are a lot of books mentioned that I haven’t read. But that’s okay! It gave me a lot of things to think about.
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