Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Bedtime reading

Foyles sits on the edge of Soho like a bookend. Established in 1903 it is the Harrods of bookshops. In its heyday Christina Foyle held literary lunches on the premises, attended by famous writers of the time. If ever the Oxford English Dictionary were stuck for a definition of ‘intimidating’ then ‘Foyles literary lunch’ would sum it up well for me.

Recently I did something in Foyles I’ve never done before. I went downstairs to the basement floor in search of the self-help section. It’s ironic that you have to go down to find the books that will make you feel up. What immediately struck me about the self-help section is its size. The shelves are floor to ceiling with books written by gurus of every description; businessmen, entrepreneurs, doctors, hypnotists, healers, religious leaders, celebrities, sportspeople, professors, scientists, philosophers, weathergirls (probably); the selection is mind-boggling. In fact someone should write a self-help guide to self-help guides. It would probably sell.

There clearly is money to be made in the self-help business. I’ve read a few articles recently suggesting the current popularity of the genre is largely down to the credit crunch and modern life being a bit stressy and shit. There’s probably some truth in that. A couple of journalists even go as far as to actually blame the banking collapse on self-help books themselves, which they claim are responsible for psyching up city traders and making them feel invincible. At this point it all gets a bit chicken and egg and I need to lie down.

Whilst flicking idly through various books, with bombastic titles such as Want it, See it, Get it! I surreptitiously took a peek at my fellow browsers. They didn’t look desperate, unstable, depressed or haunted, like they were about to throw themselves under a tube train. Nor did they particularly look like pumped up little Gordon Gekkos. They actually appeared an incredibly normal bunch. Although I did note we were all men. Perhaps women solve their problems by talking about them, whereas men prefer to furtively underline key phrases and scribble notes in the margins of self-help books?

There’s a lot of scepticism about the self-help industry. And when you read some of the titles, like Happier Than God and Awaken The Giant Within it’s easy to see why. The style of some of the writing doesn’t help either. A couple of books I picked up read like nothing more than extended penis enlargement ads. But I decided to hold back on my cynicism. After all you don’t dismiss John Steinbeck because he happens to be on the same shelf as Danielle Steel, do you? Like any genre, there must be good self-help books and bad ones. It may be a case of not judging a book by its cover. Or even its chest-beating, testosterone-enhanced title.

On the recommendation of Guy Cohen I bought Paul McKenna’s Control Stress book. I like it, a lot of it makes sense to me and it dovetails nicely with Guy’s therapies. If you feel stress may be an issue for you I think it would be £10.99 well spent. Since my trip to Foyles I’ve started to amass a small library of self-help books and related newspaper articles. (I’ve found quite a few books in charity shops, which perhaps isn’t a good sign.) Some of the stuff I’ve read seems a little fanciful, but on the whole I find them really useful to dip into for a nugget of wisdom or a piece of fresh thinking. A few pages a day seems to help keep me focused and heading in the right direction. For me, self-help books can be a great resource if you open them with an open mind.