|01||20140805||Robin Ince explores our fascination with the self-help shelf. From Socrates to Sam Smiles, Marcus Aurelius to Men are from Mars, can this $13 billion industry really make us all richer, happier and more productive? And what is it about the 21st century that has made it bigger than ever before?|
From the earliest recorded times, philosophers and writers have offered living advice to their readers. Much of ancient Stoic thinking reads a lot like a modern set of rules for a better life.
A lot of the more famous Stoics we know of were writing at the same time as the very early Christians, and there are some parallels.
What Christianity added into the mix was the idea of the personal narrative, the evangelical moment of conversion. The style of these short biographies became a mainstay of much modern self-help. I was unhappy, now I am am content. I was poor, now I am a rich businessman. You can be too.
Subsequently, this mode of writing and publishing spread over into other lifestyle areas such as food and well-being, paralleled by the continued use of the classical consolatio diatribe. Thus further setting the genre into the western European consciousness, Elizabeth I personally wrote an English translation of Boethius' Consolations in Philosophy.
The learned men of the scientific revolution - the likes of Wren, Hooke, Boyle and Newton - were obsessed by how their daily routines and diets affected their moods and ability to work.
In the 16th century diets, and "regimens", were published in medical texts printed in English, rather than Latin. Previously, medical theory was more or less only published in Latin, and only aimed at medical practitioners.
Now, many more could read up and do their homework.
John Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy" went to many editions in its time and was popular for its style as much as its authority. It was an attempt to digest all that was known about wellbeing into one massive book, but it spread well beyond its stated aims.
George Cheyne's "Essay on Health and Long Life" over a century later also sold well and was a call for moderation "in immoderate times".
But it was the Industrial Revolution and growth of cities that really led to the rise of the genre.
Samuel Smiles' "Self-Help", published the same year as, and out-selling, Darwin's "On The Origin of Species", was the literary sensation of aspirational, reform-minded Victorian Britain.
Its suggestion, that if you read and followed the examples of the successful contained within, you too could lift yourself, would have far-reaching consequences, not least in the United States.
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