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Daily RC Article 169

Critical Examination of Self-Help Books and their Societal Impact


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The passage given below is accompanied by a set of four questions. Choose the best answer to each question. Self-help books are enormously popular but there’s the question of whether self-help works at all. “To be frank, most self-help books are disappointing,” says 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.” Salerno recalls that when he was working as the editor of the books program associated with Rodale’s Men’s Health magazine, he learned that “the most likely customer for a book on any given topic was someone who had bought a similar book within the preceding eighteen months.” That’s one thing when you’re talking about Civil War books, he says – but doesn’t it imply that the first self-help book didn’t solve the reader’s problem? Salerno even argues that “the self-help guru has a compelling interest in not helping people.”

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The self-help tradition has attracted critics of its substance as well. 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.” Self-help books prey on our insecurities. … 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.

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Even if you like the idea of rugged individualism, the critics claim that self-help takes it too far. Self-help books preach that “if you believe it enough, that will carry you through,” says Salerno. “It strips away the value that we used to have for things like hard work and planning.” As for believing that one’s authentic self must be freed from society’s restrictions, that ignores the fact that those restrictions are there for a reason. Salerno muses. “Does it not make sense that a society in which everyone seeks personal fulfillment might have a hard time holding together?”

The passage discusses the skepticism surrounding the effectiveness of self-help books. Critics argue that many self-help books are disappointing, blaming the reader if the advice doesn't work. The passage suggests that self-help books may attempt to solve complex problems through simplistic means, using idealized examples that lead real people to feel like failures. The growth of the self-help industry is linked to societal changes, such as the destabilization of the labor market and family structures. Critics claim that self-help preys on insecurities, erases the concept of societal indebtedness, and promotes an individualistic mindset at the expense of values like hard work and planning. The passage questions the sustainability of a society focused on individual fulfillment at the expense of societal cohesion.
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