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Self-Help Books: Are They Actually Helpful?

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Self-help is such a nutty genre. You walk into a bookstore (at least while we're still able to) and find in the self-help section books of the most profound and timeless wisdom imaginable... sitting right next to books containing the most unbelievable crapola.

Believe me, I love self-help. It's my home. My books go in this section, and I am totally down with that. But the genre is moribund. Ten to 15 years ago, it was based on particular authors -- Deepak, Marianne Williamson, Thomas Moore, John Gray -- coming out of the woodwork and captivating zillions of eyeballs with their fresh ideas. Now, for better or worse, the days of superstar self-help authors are over. People are ready to move on to implement the ideas they read about.

No matter how convincing in the moment, once the book goes back on the shelf, we are left with our lives much as they were before reading the book. Real change takes more than discovering someone's very good argument about what happiness means. The truth is, we each have to figure it out for ourselves, and it would be so awesome if publishers would help. But the best some can think of is to go to B- and C-list celebrities -- Jennifer Love Hewitt on relationships, the one-time countess from "Real Housewives of New York" (which I love, don't get me wrong) on manners -- and pick up their sloppy seconds. Capitalizing on celebrity and somehow squeezing their "brand" into something that might be helpful to actual humans is, well, almost reprehensible. Hey, if the celebrity had something magical to say, I'd be all over it, but I just don't think that is the case.

It kills me to know that there are gazillions of people out there who are wondering right now how to love. How to be heard. Whether or not to break up with someone. How to cope with the death of a loved one. How to heal a broken relationship. How to make art. How to know themselves and figure out their purpose. How to create a life of meaning, change the world, cultivate peace, achieve health, and on and on. And these people find, when they go to the self-help section in the bookstore, advice from Janet Jackson and Suzanne Somers. My intent is not to diss anyone; I'm just wondering if this is the best we can do.

My hope, dream and prediction is that finally self-help is going to move away from being author-driven to being topic-driven. Short, pithy, live (meaning constantly being revised and updated and including reader comments) books that are about something very specific that a person may need in the moment: how to tell someone you love them, or ask for a raise or find the courage to write.

Enough with people telling you why their ideas for your life are best. On to books that help you figure your own best ideas. Not my wisdom, yours, so you can change your world -- and then the world. Books can do this, you know.

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