Review of 50 Self-Help Classics by Tom Butler-Bowdon

This book, heralded as the first and only ‘bite-sized’ introduction to the classic works of ‘life transformation,’ is long overdue. Samuel Smiles wrote “Self- Help” in 1859, but the term only became widely used in the twentieth century. The idea of self-help, however, has been around for centuries. From religious works dating from thousands of years before Christ, such as the The Bhagavad-Gita, to modern American books such as Martin Seligman’s “Learned Optimism,” Butler-Bowdon covers what he calls the theme of ‘refusal to accept common unhappiness.’

Butler-Bowdon reveals the popularity of the self-help book: he claims his selection of 50 classics has sold over 150 million copies, and the total number for the genre has reached more than half a billion copies. The book is divided into six themes, from The Power of Thought to Making a Difference. Such divisions are of course highly arbitrary. David Burns’ “Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy” is listed in The Power of Thought category, while Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” is listed under Secrets of Happiness. Broadly speaking, all the books are about our search for happiness. 50 Self-help Classics deserves to be a favorite among the millions of self-help enthusiasts who are still looking for the book that will explain the keys to happiness, but are overwhelmed by the avalanche of new titles every year that claim to do just that. Butler-Bowdon has done everyone a service by providing a three or four page synopsis of each of the most influential self-help volumes and biographical details of the authors. Furthermore, each book section also has an ‘In a Nutshell’ section that distills the book’s message down to a couple of sentences. Very handy.

My interest was first drawn to Butler-Bowdon’s views on the books that first introduced me to self-help and that I still hold in high esteem: Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and Maxwell Maltz’s “Psycho-Cybernetics.” He also holds them in high esteem. In fact, Butler Bowdon, respecting the theme of positive thinking that pervades the self-help field, has very few negative comments on any of the books. After all, he chose them as the outstanding works in the field. But the joy of reading this book comes from not only being reintroduced to books one enjoyed years ago, but also from the chance to read about less mainstream works, from ancient volumes such as The Dhammapada, Buddha’s teachings, to recent books such as Alain de Botton’s “How Proust Can Change Your Life.”

The self-help field is so large that you soon realize that without this book you could spend so much time reading that you would not have time to put all that good advice into practice. Another realization–many of the authors repeat the same ideas: be positive, realize that change means action rather than just thought, develop goals, be optimistic, yet realistic, and don’t worry about trivial matters. However, the examples the authors give often give their books a unique perspective. After reading this book, you should be in a happy, positive frame of mind. If not, read it again. It really does contain the keys to happiness.

Clive Lilwall taught communications at Durham College, Oshawa, Ontario. He is the author of “How to Stop Your 67 Worst Worries.”

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