Alain de Botton has become the self-help guru to the British middle-class—a life coach pitched at those who might read The Guardian on an iPad, buy ethical chocolate, and assert an interest in the Booker shortlist. If you’re a certain kind of amateur intellectual with self-improving impulses, it’s less vulgar to entrust your anxieties to a Cambridge- and Harvard-educated pop philosopher who speaks three languages than to the hearty exhortations of Tony Robbins or Oprah.
Another new year, another TNR article sneering at the great unwashed for artlessly trying to rise above their station in life. The rest of the review goes on to select what she considers the most tellingly jejune examples of de Botton’s self-improvement tips. Those are all gratuitous, though, as the attentive reader has likely already discerned from the condescending tone of this paragraph and its crude character sketch that a de Botton reader is nothing you want to be. Wait, you mean reading a certain newspaper on a tablet signifies something essential about your character? Ethical chocolate implies some sort of faux pas? The Booker shortlist indicates some sort of gauche social climbing? Ohmigod, am I a pseudo-intellectual too?!
There, there, it’s all right. You’re reading a serious publication, aren’t you? The author’s addressing you like an understanding confidant, is she not? You’re not like those swine, gracelessly rooting through the classics of literature for tasty tidbits, oblivious to the pearls contained within. Or, at the very least, you know better than to admit it now.
My own perspectives on de Botton have run the gamut from favorable to exasperated to everything in between. (In the grand scheme of things, that means I appreciate him as a source of stimulation and provocation.) And I’ve even been dyspeptic about those who get too grabby with art for self-help purposes. But I do agree that a large part of the animus toward the genre is probably classist and snobbish, a way of jeering at oafs who weren’t fortunate enough to be brought up reading Tolstoy and Shakespeare, who don’t know how to give off the impression of appreciating such high culture effortlessly:
Still, just because there’s plenty to criticize doesn’t mean that there isn’t plenty that’s worthwhile, too. As Gretchen Rubin points out, all branches of knowledge have their quacks: “When you have your astronomy, then you get your astrology—and we have our own astrologers in this neck of the woods.” Nonetheless, “the greatest minds throughout history have thought about things like self-knowledge and self-control and how to live a good life. I don’t know why it’s now branded as snake-oil stuff.” Even the most over-the-top books offer a real benefit: they encourage the virtue of self-examination. To read self-help is to take stock of one’s self and to ask what kind of life one wants to lead.
These are profound issues, and what the genre’s critics sometimes miss, too, is that self-help readers are well equipped to explore them. That’s because the people who buy these books are, like all book buyers, “pretty comfortable,” says John Duff of Penguin. “It’s going to be that middle-class person, reasonably well-educated” and in “very rarefied” company, as “our market for all books is really very limited. Most people stop reading when they leave school.” Those who don’t stop probably have their acts together. Call it the paradox of self-help. “The type of person who values self-control and self-improvement is the type of person who would seek more of it in a self-help book,” Whelan says. “So it’s not the unemployed crazy lady sitting on the couch eating potato chips who reads self-help. It’s the educated, affluent, probably fairly successful person who wants to better themselves.”
Consequently, self-help readers rarely do everything that a book advises; after examining their own lives, they use their judgment to decide what’s worth trying. Rubin reports that her readers “pick one or two things and they feel good about it. They pick the things they feel are right for them.” Hyperbole from gurus like Robbins is best viewed not as serious advice but as motivation for the hard work of personal change.