In an earlier post, I mentioned the ‘angel train’ concept, where you go to bed at 10pm for three nights in a row.  Someone has read this & is now following this advice; as I type, they are getting into bed for their third and final early night.  Admittedly, this is someone that I know; it’s not like a random person who stumbled upon this blog & decided that I seemed like wise & inspiring guru.  Even so, it’s slightly weird to think that I said something & someone has acted upon it in a situation where my advice has not been actively solicited.  I can’t imagine what it must be like for some celebrities, where their words can cause an item to sell out overnight. 

The celebrity endorsement factor is a theme in Robyn Okrant’s Living Oprah, about her year-long experiment to follow all of the advice & instructions given by Oprah Winfrey on her show, in her magazine & on her website.  The book is amusing & thought-provoking for anyone interested in celebrity culture and/or the Western’s world seemingly insatiable appetite for self-help in its various guises.  Towards the end of the book, Okrant reflects on the almost addictive nature of self-help: you may get tired of the endless drive towards self-improvement & you may feel like you’ve heard all the advice before in one way or another, but you can’t let go.  You still keep tuning into the show or buying the books in the hope that the next one contains the nugget that you’re looking for; like the gambling addict convinced that the triple cherries have to appear on the fruit machine wheels at some point, you fear that you’ll miss the insight that you’re looking for if you don’t watch that particular episode or read the latest title.

I know those feelings well.  I have read a lot of self-help books.  I remember the stack where they were kept in my college library.  It was a deserted corner, always dark, with what felt like a womb-like embrace as I ran my finger along all those titles that have become pop culture cliches: The Cinderella Complex; Fat is a Femininist Issue; Feel the Fear…And Do It Anyway; Women Who Love Too Much.  The self-help section in my local library now is in a far less pleasing position, but I remain equally entranced by it.  I can’t say that I know every title on there, but I always spot any new additions and notice when one book’s been on loan for a while (The Fear Factor and The Secret are v popular; Edward de Bono is not).

I no longer devour self-help titles quite like I used to.  When I first embarked upon this quest, I was constantly reading them, despite the fact that I was receiving far superior professional help.  I have gained from them, but it tends to be useful hints & tips (such as the ‘angel train’ idea) rather than anything particularly profound.  I have also gained hours of amusement from them (I’d highly recommend Ellen Kriedman’s Light His Fire: How to Keep Your Man Madly and Passionately In Love With You in this respect, although I feel I should add that this was read in a spirit of entertainment from the outset – it was in the library of a place I was staying, aged sixteen on hols with my family, between Rude Food and The Thorn Birds, both of which I also read).

I haven’t had any kind of Damescian moment where I’ve renounced the self-help genre.  I certainly believe that these books have their place & for some people they provide the only guidance they can get; it’s all too easy to mock them when you have the social & financial capital to look for solutions elsewhere, be it an expensive ‘retreat’ or a designer handbag.  However, like Okrant finds with her ‘Living Oprah’ project, I’ve realised that external sources will never provide the answers I am looking forward.  I can read as many self-help books as is humanly possible & will not find my truth.  I can only find my life’s meaning by looking internally, by following my own instincts & guidance.  It’s not as easy following someone else’s advice as laid out in a shiny new paperback, but whoever said it was easy? 

‘Liberty is terrifying but it is also exhilirating.  Life is not easier or more pleasant for the Noras who have set off on their own journey to awareness, but it is more interesting, nobler even.  Such counsel will be called encouragement of irresponsibility, but the woman who accepts a way of life which she has not knowingly chosen, acting out a series of contingencies falsely presented as destiny, is truly irresponsible.  To abdicate one’s own moral understanding, to tolerate crimes against humanity, to leave everything to someone else, the father-ruler-king-computer, is the only irresponsibility.’ Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch.


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