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We are living in the age of the self-help book. This is an age where the thought of literature as a tool of self-discovery has been flipped into a marketplace where vaguely qualified authors sell questionable advice on topics ranging from relationships and money, to constricting your anus to alleviate depression. (How to Good-Bye Depression: If You Constrict Your Anus 100 Times Everyday, by Hiroyuki Nishigaki.)

Literature has, in the past, presented us with the chance to experience our problems in a different realm than real life, pushed us to new levels of understanding, and given us a malleable world with which to test new ideas. Sadly, the medium has all but lost these benefits in recent years.

Even for the literati, reading seems now to be more of a social undertaking than one of actual personal development. It seems that now, books exist solely to be used as fuel for strange conversations in which the names of several authors are listed very rapidly, while the two conversationalists nod and shake their heads in various states of agreement. Sometimes, this leads to sex.

More frequently, novels are used solely as a form of escapism, as shown in the Twilight novels and Harry Potter. Although many take enjoyment from these stories, most of them offer nothing more positive than the fact they are made of paper, and therefore may be burned for fuel in emergencies.

Literature is an endless wasteland of other people’s mistakes and observations, much like the Internet. You don’t need the actual experience when you can rely on centuries of other peoples’ problems, in an easily accessible database available to all of us. Of course, to those who detest reading, there is little point or joy to be gained from reading the entirety of say, Don Quixote, to learn one simple lesson. These are the type of people for whom self-help books were invented.
There are two main types of self-help books. The Secret and The Memory Book demonstrate the opposite ends of the spectrum.

The Secret

When people ask me about my time at Argyle Secondary, the first thing I tell them is that in our Career and Personal Planning class, our teacher discussed The Secret at length. I mean this in the most derogatory way possible. As one reviewer, Matt Cale, pointed out on his blog, “Every generation gets the pyramid scheme it deserves, and ours begins and ends with The Secret.”

For those who don’t know, The Secret is a book that hopes to prove one simple premise: that there is a law of attraction in the universe, and attracting anything you desire simply requires you to think about it as hard as you can for a very long time. It’s not simply that positive thinking will encourage better results – the premise of the book is actually that you need to “summon things through persistent thought.” Literally summon them. From the universe. Likewise, if you think negatively, you are to blame for the negative things that occur. Suck on that, victims of crime!  
Really, this book just takes very basic tenets of psychology and makes up a crazy backstory to explain very simplistic things. Most of these ideas are actually good, although virtually none of them are original (aside from the bit about sending our thoughts into the universe and having them bring us back sports cars and money). So if you’re a critical thinker, you can still get something out of this book, but it will test even the bravest of you when you stumble upon quotes such as “Whether we realize it or not, we are thinking most of the time.”

The Memory Book

The Memory Book does not have the colour pages or numerous illustrations that The Secret does. It is small, has a plain cover, and is filled with small print. The goal of this book is to bring your memory up to par. Maybe not to the level of the two authors (Harry Lorayne, who would memorize names of 1,500 audience members at his talks, or Jerry Lucas, who memorized every player of every NBA team while he played for the New York Knicks) but enough to at least memorize your shopping list.

The Memory Book uses a system called “the link,” which is simply “linking one item to another, forming the links of a memory chain.” From this basic tenet, which is strongly focused on creating memorable images, the authors build up to remembering long-digit number systems, memorizing cards or speeches and even a phonetic alphabet.

They’re very simple concepts, but they require time and dedication to refine. This is the key concept here. Like Amway or other pyramid schemes, where you pay money for a “business” that has no physical value, The Secret offers nothing tangible, whereas The Memory Book gives you a tangible skill, that requires practice to learn, and can actually be used.  

As Christopher Buckley, author of Thank You For Smoking, said, “The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one.” However, you still can learn extremely valuable things from self-help books, as The Memory Book has shown. Unfortunately, since published in 1974, The Memory Book has sold only around 2 million copies, while as of 2007, The Secret had sold 2.7 million.

Choosing Wisely

The solution to differentiating between these two types of self-help books is this: Whenever a mass amount of people purchases the same thing, it is invariably stupid, because the majority of people who rush to purchase fads are generally stupid themselves. When a large number of stupid people buy a book, that gives even greater cause to question the integrity of the literature.
Instead, feel free to buy a book based solely on the fact that it is popular, but make sure it is not enormously so. Many of the world’s greatest authors fall into this lukewarm category of popularity, and self-help books are no different.

Perhaps, as many critics have suggested after the release of How to Good-Bye Depression: If You Constrict Your Anus 100 Times Everyday, the best option is to simply refuse to purchase self-help books. Our monetary support provides more incentives for even greedier and less scrupulous people to enter the industry. Furthermore, at a basic level, we know the correct choices and decisions beforehand, and are simply seeking validation for our own conclusions. We don’t need people to tell us how to clench our anuses.

//Mac Fairbairn
Opinions Editor

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