Harvard Book Store welcomes BETH BLUM—Assistant Professor of English at Harvard University—for a discussion of her new book, The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature. She will be joined in conversation by fellow Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize–winning author LOUIS MENAND.
Samuel Beckett as a guru for business executives? James Joyce as a guide to living a good life? The notion of notoriously experimental authors sharing a shelf with self-help books might seem far-fetched, yet a hidden history of rivalry, influence, and imitation links these two worlds. In The Self-Help Compulsion, Beth Blum reveals the profound entanglement of modern literature and commercial advice from the late nineteenth century to the present day.
Blum explores popular reading practices in which people turn to literature in search of practical advice alongside modern writers’ rebukes of such instrumental purposes. As literary authors positioned themselves in opposition to people like Samuel Smiles and Dale Carnegie, readers turned to self-help for the promises of mobility, agency, and practical use that serious literature was reluctant to supply. Blum unearths a series of unlikely cases of the love-hate relationship between serious fiction and commercial advice, from Gustave Flaubert’s mockery of early DIY culture to Dear Abby’s cutting diagnoses of Nathanael West and from Virginia Woolf’s ambivalent polemics against self-improvement to the ways that contemporary global authors such as Mohsin Hamid and Tash Aw explicitly draw on the self-help genre. She also traces the self-help industry’s tendency to popularize, quote, and adapt literary wisdom and considers what it might have to teach today’s university. Offering a new history of self-help’s origins, appeal, and cultural and literary import around the world, this book reveals that self-help’s most valuable secrets are not about getting rich or winning friends but about how and why people read.
“Beth Blum has opened our eyes to a fascinating area: the intersection between self-help and serious literature. Blum is deeply unusual among scholars in appreciating the extent to which ordinary readers seek solace and insight in literature—and she explores the consequences of this idea in a series of readings of important and interesting writers. This book is sure to deepen our understanding of a genre of literature that has perhaps been too hastily dismissed in the past.” —Alain de Botton, author of How Proust Can Change Your Life
“Self-help books have become the favorite reading of Americans, and English professors are no exception. Until Beth Blum’s ferociously witty yet ultimately sympathetic study, however, few critics saw any way to connect their lowbrow guilty pleasure with the high-flown ambitions of literary theory. Blum’s intellectual history of self-help takes seriously the ideas as well as the institutions involved in the production of this body of practical knowledge. Self-help thus stands revealed as the uncanny double not just of literature itself but of literary theory.” —Leah Price, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Books
“Beth Blum places us at the cross road of creation. Here at last we can see the “self-improvement axioms” hidden in the rarified atmosphere of Virginia Woolf’s modernism, Marcel Proust in the company of advice columnist Ann Landers, a poem by Baudelaire enumerating his recent reading of self-help books. In moments of acute love or loss or fear, literature can feel like a rope bridge carrying us safely across a ravine. Beth Blum’s brilliant and startling book shows us why.” —Elaine Scarry, Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard University
Certain books were “banned in Boston” at least as far back as 1651, when one William Pynchon wrote a book criticizing Puritanism.