Despite being part therapy session and part snake oil, self-help books aren’t regulated like professional counselors or drugs. In times of crisis, they can be soothing and empowering, but sometimes they’re selling you a bill of goods when you’re at your weakest. And you often don’t know which of these you’re getting. Here are some ways into the media of personal growth—no feeling weird in the self-help section required.
Self-help podcasts are a new and nice phenomenon. One of my favorites is Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg’s By the Book. In each episode, the co-hosts discuss a new self-help book and recount spending two weeks trying to live by its rules—they’ve tried out Mireille Giuliano’s French Women Don’t Get Fat, Meik Wiking’s Little Book of Hygge, and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The two women have a delightful dynamic—Meinzer is warm and kind and has a strong Minnesotan accent, while Greenberg’s more acerbic. In the Little Book of Hygge episode, Meinzer discusses all of her favorite holiday movies while Greenberg responds with understandable shock at how many Meinzer claims are her favorites (it’s like over 50, which is unreasonable). I recommend starting with that episode and the KonMari episode. The French Women Don’t Get Fat episode includes a surprisingly touching, frank discussion of body image, eating disorders, and what it’s like to live inside a female body. It’s essential (but potentially triggering) listening. Happily, after enduring Giuliano’s restrictive weekend cleanse, Greenberg and Meinzer vowed never to live by a diet-based self-help book again, which is exactly what we need in this confusing world of “clean eating” and Whole 30 Instagram posts and Tide Pod snacks.
I’m also a loyal listener of Happier in Hollywood, hosted by TV writing partners Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain. Every week, Craft and Fain, who have been friends since high school and have worked on The Shield and Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, discuss everything from navigating the bizarre dynamics of working in the entertainment industry to discussing death with their children to the grossness of Harvey Weinstein (their commentary on sexual harassment in Hollywood is essential listening). As a single childless person who’s younger than both of them and a different kind of writer, I am not their target audience by any stretch. But I find their honest conversations about the hard work of personal growth to be weirdly aspirational, and their laidback tone makes their more woo-woo self-help moments oddly charming rather than cringe-worthy.
Condensed Self-Help Books
Having been raised in the school of “Read the book one chapter at a time, the whole chapter in one sitting, and don’t skip ahead to the end,” I find the entire concept of condensed books to be mildly horrifying. A book should not be condensed! It’s a book! Someone made that! That said, if you’re going to give the self-help racket your money, services like Joosr and Blinkist provide e-reader versions of nonfiction books like Brené Brown’s Rising Strong and Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic in condensed forms that take about 15 minutes to read.
I chose the most self-helpy option available, Amy Morin’s 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do on Joosr. The experience was... odd. Morin raises some salient points (don’t go around being jealous of other people’s success, failure is how we grow, it’s better to accept change than to fight it) but mostly, my takeaway was that I probably wouldn’t have read her whole book. Still, I could see Joosr or Blinkist as a good way to get a feel for the zeitgeist’s current favorite self-help book, and perhaps as a way to decide what self-help books would actually be of benefit to you, which is, you know, kind of the point.