Why do self-help books keep selling? Lots of reasons. For starters, their commercial success is entirely predicated on the fact that no single one of them tends to help the problem. Most forms of “if-then” law survive because of our predilection for control and self-justification, but the inner irony is that our continued “love affair” with such quick fixes depends directly on the fact that it does us no good.

9780399536984There’s no better sociological parable of the Law that the still-growing American self-help industry, a frequently snide subject for us at Mockingbird but one that, it helps to remember, is inveterately there in all of us, which is why it provokes such nervously self-conscious derision. The City Journal recently did a piece on America’s Unique Love Affair with Self-Help“, pointing out national attitudes underlying the self-help obsession and some its social consequences. All the same, if you think reading a simple article can end your love affair with self-help… But it does go to show some good, presumably secular wisdom on the demand for happiness in practice:

There is much to mock about titles like the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, which has so many constituent books for teens, preteens, dog lovers, and so forth that it occupies its own shelf in Barnes & Noble. There are serious criticisms, too: that self-help distracts Americans from a fraying social safety net and disintegrating communities, or that an obsession with self-actualization breeds people unwilling to sacrifice for the greater good. But at its best, self-help captures something uniquely American: the belief that anyone can pursue happiness…

Then there’s the question of whether self-help works at all. “To be frank, most self-help books are disappointing,” says [sociologist Christine] Whelan. “They often blame the victim with the implied message that the advice in the book works, and if it doesn’t work for you, you didn’t try hard enough. They often seek to solve problems that can’t really be solved by reading a book on your own. They use composite stories to create idealized examples of how the advice works, which only leads real people to wonder why they keep failing.”

Micki McGee, a professor of sociology at Fordham University and author of Self-Help, Inc.: Makeover Culture in American Life, notes that, since the 1970s, the growth in self-help has paralleled the destabilization of the labor market and of families. “In place of a social safety net, Americans have been offered row upon row of self-help books,” she says. A declining number of people have a lifelong profession or a lifelong marriage, and so “it is no longer sufficient to be married or employed; rather, it is imperative that one remains marriageable and employable.” …Taking issue with the “empowerment” school, she points out that “the idea that you’re completely in charge of your own destiny has as its inverse that if anything happens to you, you are to blame.” And if things go well? Self-help is steeped in “that painful, self-congratulatory aspect that American success has. It’s not enough to be successful, you get to take full individual credit for it,” as if no one had helped you along the way. “Our indebtedness to each other is erased in this literature,” McGee says….

This final insight has a deep relation to Christianity – the indebtedness of judgment and the gratitude once that judgment is paid have little to no meaning in the “painful, self-congratulatory” way of looking at things.

This viewpoint is of course evenly distributed among partisan lines, part of the intrinsic human condition. “Yes We Can!” and “We Built It” look remarkably similar from a Law/Grace standpoint, and perhaps that’s because this obsession with progress, both personal and communal, is articulated with unusual directness in the roots of America itself:

The fact that we choose our gurus according to who seems most compelling is also very American. We have no state religion, and few of us do things just because our great-grandparents did. We don’t listen to a village elder who tells us what the good life looks like. Instead, we construct it ourselves, from what we see of the world around us—and what we find at the bookstore.

That reflects the philosophy of our Founding, says Indiana University folklorist Sandra K. Dolby, whose treatise Self-Help Books: Why Americans Keep Reading Them takes an anthropological look at these mixtures of case studies and morals….

And so, living out the Founders’ expectations, we undertake our happiness projects, trusting that with hard work—and perhaps a few positive thought vibrations—we can succeed. “Americans think they can find a way to fix anything,” says Dolby, “including themselves.”