Make your own Bible. Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Any time that I visit a bookshop, I am greeted with shelves heaving with self-help books – Stop Worrying and Start an Insurance Fire; So You Married a Moron – What Now?; Seven Habits of Highly-Successful Pontiffs; Viennese-Waltz Yourself Thin; Calm Mind, Firm Behind; Improve Your I.Q. in Only Five Decades; Ten Lessons I Learned About Business from Spongebob Squarepants. Okay, I made those up, but, considering the challenges undergone by the publishing industry in the last decade, this seems to be one of its most successful sectors. For instance, in the United States alone, self-help publishing is worth $13 billion dollars annually. But surely, as Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote in ‘In Memoriam’ (1850), ‘[t]here lives more faith in honest doubt […] than in half the creeds’?
Clearly, self-help guides appeal to a deep-seated human need for development, improvement and validation, and not all are quite as hopeless as I make them sound. Indeed, some offer worthwhile practical advice in achieving doable goals, without resorting to exploiting or misleading their reader. At the same time, though, many more are bombastically predicated on the assumption that they can impart some select body of knowledge that cannot be accessed anywhere else. The price of the book is the cost of your admission to this exclusive elite of individuals who understand and have acted upon its precepts – and without it, you will presumably never be rich or happy, smart or thin.
Shouldn’t we doubt those who claim to bring such certainty to bear on our lives? After all, delving between their covers, many self-help books provide little more than common sense dressed up in everyday platitudes and inane slogans, or a blend of the two. Of course, for millennia, religion of all forms provided humans with an ethical framework to guide their lifestyles, as well as their morals. With the increased secularisation of the last century, however, many have ceased to find meaningful answers in spiritual texts and Sunday sermons, which has forced them to look elsewhere. In short, the old solutions have gone, but the need remains – enter the self-help industry, which promises much, but often delivers little.
As with most things, the ancients got there first. The earliest example of what we might term a self-help text is probably The Maxims of Ptahotep (c.2800 B.C.), a father’s advice to his son dating from ancient Egypt. Most of the surviving works from antiquity come from Greek and Roman philosophers, though, who thought, talked and wrote endlessly about what it meant to live a good life. Arguably the best known of these reflections are Cicero’s On Duty (44 B.C.) and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (c.180 A.D.), but instances range all the way from Epicurus’s On Nature (c.300 B.C.) to Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy (c.524 A.D.). Of course, that is not to mention the non-Western canons of the Buddhist, Confucian, Hindu or Islamic traditions, among others, which each boast their own examples of what we might term the self-help guide.
Later, the medieval and early-modern eras witnessed a plethora of texts on courtly etiquette, or ‘courtesy books’ as they were known, the most famous of which is arguably Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528). While some of the works from this period were directed towards material advancement, such as Niccolò Macchiavelli’s The Prince (1532), others presented more inward-looking examinations of life, such as Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (1580). Other works never initially intended for publication, such as Lord Chesterfield’s Letters to His Son (1774), also became widely appreciated for the worth of their practical and ethical advice. Undoubtedly, the father of the modern self-help industry, however, is Samuel Smiles, whose Self Help (1859) gave it its title, while seeking to empower the Victorian working and middle classes to better themselves with inspiring examples of others’ success stories.
Already, a century ago – long before Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins or Eckhart Tolle –, G.K. Chesterton was complaining about the self-help industry, writing that ‘[t]here are books showing men how to succeed in everything […] written by men who cannot even succeed in writing books.’ With the corporate spin put on self-help by Dale Carnegie with his seemingly-evergreen How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), the sector gained a commercial bent that it has never lost. Nowadays, we seem to have reached super-saturation with self-help titles, as we are bombarded on television, in newspapers and online with an array of self-proclaimed gurus and life coaches determined to ‘improve’ our lives and make us a better [insert dubious claim]. But surely the clue is in the title? Shouldn’t self-help start with ourselves?
Ultimately, I think that we all need to trust ourselves more, while drawing our life advice from a range of sources, not just one mortal’s word. Here’s my advice: I suggest that you create a small shelf somewhere in your house where you can keep the books that mean the most to you as guides to life. If you like, think of it like the medicine cabinet in your household, there when you need it. I don’t mean it so much as a place for your favourite novels – although they might find a place for some people, perhaps Marcel Proust’s In Seach of Lost Time, for instance –, but more for works that seek to convey some element of wisdom that can be enacted in one’s daily life, whether they are practical or philosophical in tone. In previous centuries, these were the sort of books that might have been termed a vade mecum – Latin for a ‘go with me.’
The term vade mecum dates not to antiquity as one might assume, but to the seventeenth century, when books were still a precious commodity and individuals obliged to choose with care the volumes to take when travelling. Their exclusivity is embodied by the fact that gold and medication were also items to which the phrase vade mecum was attached, since they were also expensive, indispensable items to be kept close to one’s person. In that era, such texts were primarily religious works or philosophical treatises, but books in general were far from plentiful. Nowadays, we are oversubscribed for reading material – not only hardback and paperback books, but Kindles full of titles that we may never get around to reading. But we still face the same issue of trying to live a happy and fulfilled life – hence the need for a judicious selection of books to help us.
As you might imagine, the ancients make up a fair proportion of my own choice for a set of vade-mecum works – Epicurus, Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius –, but you will also find Michel de Montaigne’s Essays (1580) and Leo Tolstoy’s Calendar of Wisdom (1910) there, too. Naturally, there are also a few manuals devoted to writing, such as William Zinnsers’ On Writing Well (1976), Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones (1986) and Ray Bradbury’s Zen and the Art of Writing (1990). Counterbalancing my interest in Western culture, I also have my fair share of texts on Eastern philosophy, such as the Buddhist Dhamapadda and Confucius’s Analects, since the West clearly doesn’t have an exclusive claim upon wisdom.
Maintaining a commonplace book is another great habit that fits into the idea of having a set of vade-mecum texts to keep close at hand. Simply a place to jot down aphorisms, quotations or passages that stand out in what you read, commonplace books have been used by authors from John Milton to E.M. Forster to link what they read with what they think and write. Of course, one should be wary of finding all of one’s material online, which often misattributes quotes or gets them wrong entirely. If in doubt, a good start is investing in an authoritative work, such as The Yale Book of Quotations, which guarantees the veracity of its material. Poetry anthologies, too, are an excellent resource for providing helpful words of wisdom, such as The Oxford Book of English Verse or The Norton Anthology of Poetry.
William Gladstone, four-time British prime minister and a bibliophile if ever there was one, believed that ‘[b]ooks are the voices of the dead. They are a main instrument of communion with the vast human procession of the other world. They are the allies of the thought of man.’ I’ve never valued books as objects as some booksellers or dealers do; some of my favourite books are battered old paperbacks with their covers falling off, rather than hand-tooled leather editions. After all, just as your mother told you, it’s what’s on the inside that counts. But my advice is to go and put a book or two that you truly value for what it’s taught you in a special place, and start noting down words that ring true to you in a notebook. I believe that true wisdom is free, and, if you start accumulating your own, you may find yourself never wanting to look at another self-help book again.
Now, more than ever, we need, as Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested, to make our own Bibles – not that I’m suggesting that one needs to abandon the original; if that is central to your beliefs, then of course it should find its place. But we deserve to forge a lifestyle from a combination of our experience and our knowledge; one that accords with our innate personality and beliefs that is not welded on from without; and one that is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and didactic rather than dictatorial. As E.M. Forster put it, ‘the only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little further down our particular path than we have yet gone ourselves.’ Whatever works we choose to find our wisdom in as we journey through life, we should not submissively accept that of the self-help industry as Gospel.