Annie Murphy Paul On Serious Self-Help Books

annie murphy paulWhile books in the self-help genre sell millions of copies, there still lingers a spurious division between them and “serious” books.

Good news: We can do away with this division. In a masterful post—In Defense of Self-HelpAnnie Murphy Paul explains why.

Annie is a contributing writer for Time magazine and writes a weekly column about learning for

It’s OK to get practical

I’ve read many captivating non-fiction books that I swore would transform my life. Almost none of them did. Why? Because they don’t answer the question: What do I do on Monday?

Annie says it well:

It’s my impression that authors and experts often feel burdened by these kinds of questions, and that parents and teachers are often made to feel bad for asking them. Look at my big ideas, my elaborate frameworks, my captivating stories! the authors say, in so many words. Don’t bother me about the picayune details of how they get implemented!… The authors’ disinclination to get too specific is aggravated by the conventions of the publishing industry, which draws a bright line between “serious” books and “advice and how-to.”

Of course, that “bright line” is entirely arbitrary. Good self-help books offer the best of both worlds—sound ideas and practical suggestions for using them.

I’ve previously defined the goals of serious self-help as self-care, skill acquisition, “homework” to supplement professional treatment, and habits that prevent health problems.

Annie’s post adds another dimension to this definition: “intelligent, well-written books that distill the scientific literature and the practices of great teachers into practical, actionable steps.”

Signs of serious self-help

In a still useful report from 2000 on the state of self-help, Annie lists these signs of credible self-help from online sources:

  • The owner of the site and the source of its financing are clearly marked; a physical address is offered in addition to an electronic one.
  • The site’s confidentiality policy is clearly spelled out.
  • Advertising and products for sale (if any) are clearly separated from editorial content.
  • Online experts are identified by name, credentials and institution.
  • Information is based not on anecdotes or testimonials but on clinical studies published in medical or scientific journals, by authors from well-known institutions.
  • Information is reviewed by experts and updated often.

These are useful criteria for distinguishing the self-help wheat from the chaff in any medium.

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