If there were a rehabilitation program for self-help book addicts, I would be the first to enroll - or maybe second, after my dad. I probably devour two advice books for every movie I manage to catch in the theater. But my dad's devotion to the realm of self-help rivals Santa Claus' devotion to sleigh-delivered dreams. My dad could write the book on "How to Read Self-Help Books."
Check out my dad's nightstand: classic titles, such as "The Power of Positive Thinking" or "How to Win Friends and Influence People," cozy up to relatively recent releases, like "The Millionaire Next Door" or "The Powermind System."
Listen to my dad's conversations: he quotes John Wooden and John Maxwell at least as often as he quotes "Die Hard" and "Dumb and Dumber." (And go ahead and make the assumption. He quotes those movies as often as the average male.)
Flip through any one of my dad's custom-made notebooks: quotes are interspersed with affirmations and ideas to improve his golf game. The evidence is incontrovertible. Self-help books are to my dad what "Halo 3" is to my boyfriend. He couldn't make it through a day without them.
I would say, then, that it's not my fault I impulsively buy and compulsively read books like "The Dorm Room Diet" or "Be Happy Without Being Perfect," because I, after all, have a genetic predisposition. But, unfortunately, I completely buy into the standard self-help cliché that "I am responsible for myself," so I necessarily have to believe that I read self-help books because I choose to read them.
Genes can't serve as my scapegoat because nothing can. I might try to pass off my humiliating habit by calling it an "addiction" but I can't even get by with that because there isn't a rehabilitation program for people who "every day, in every way, want to get better and better."
Honestly, I'm surprised there isn't such a program. There are programs for nearly everything else. And doctors these days are very obliging about diagnosing disorders. But, then again, a rehab program is only an exploded self-help book, an American blow-dryer plugged into a European socket.
Advice books and therapy work together the way modern media experts wish print and online sources could; authors refer readers to therapists and therapists refer patients to authors. In other words, self-help detox would be more like self-help retox. Nobody would pay - and payment is the placebo of therapy.
Besides, in the end, there's nothing inherently wrong with reading self-help books, even though, presumably, "something wrong" is what leads people to read them. Self-help books, as the name of their genre suggests, can and frequently do help people help themselves.
For example, when I'm in the cafeteria, as a result of reading "The Dorm Room Diet," I no longer allow friends to grab food for me when they go to get second helpings themselves. If I did, I would miss out on "the extra exercise" of walking from the table to the food line. So, I don't want to knock the books; I just want to stop reading them - so much. (They're generally quick reads, so I see no reason to abandon them altogether.)
I think I would benefit from reading a little more "Shopaholic and Sister" and a little less "Seven Habits of Highly Effective Teens." Because, no matter how hard I try, I can't be perfect at being happy without being perfect. And my self-help reading only seems to hammer that point home. Inevitably, I rise from reading the latest advice column resolved to be "totally on top of things" and, inevitably, I go to bed at the end of the night feeling woefully inadequate.
Now, I know those witty and wonderfully balanced writers who dispense advice so liberally in their columns don't mean to make me feel less than mature, just like my dad never meant to saddle me with an "I can't think of a problem so I must have a problem" complex. I just happen to be the sort of person who analyzes her ability to analyze and who has a very hard time letting go of the fact that she has a hard time letting go. That is to say, I'm a self-help author's dream reader. That is to say, I was a self-help author's dream reader - back when I read self-help books.
Even if I manage to rid myself of my paranoid preoccupation with procuring the latest advice, though, my intrinsic desire to develop ever more fully as a person will probably persist. Well, good. I suspect the extreme self-help fetish I share with my dad is relatively unique to us, but I think a desire to improve is pretty universal. Again, good, because the smidge of dissatisfaction that tinges our opinions of even our best efforts is what drives us to keep striving (a.k.a living).
It's lucky for us we're not perfect. But it's especially lucky for self-help authors.
Tina Korbe is a staff writer for The Arkansas Traveler. Her column appears every Monday.