The Post-Modern Self   /   Spring 2017   /    The Post-modern Self

The New Old Ways of Self-Help

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Hipster in Stone II (detail), 2014, by Léo Caillard,; courtesy of the artist.

Not only do we collect multiple experiences, but we really wish to be multiple.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.
—“Fog,” Carl Sandburg

In recent years, a new sensibility has tiptoed across the country, pausing on the self-help shelves of bookstore and library and Amazon warehouse before being taken home and curled up with by gentle reader after gentle reader in some cozy reading spot. In novels and advice books alike, to say nothing of the multitudinous offerings on ever-Newer Age spirituality, we hear the half-alluring, half-cloying meow of everyone’s most recently adopted pet theory: mindfulness.

Given previous waves of fascination with yoga and assorted borrowings from Buddhism, whether serious or attenuated, mindfulness is not really all that new. Hardly alone, it must settle in beside a panoply of other pet theories, approaches, and programs, past and present. Given the current omnipresence of self-help guidance, whether you think this panoply necessary armor or just another way of pussyfooting around the business of living is not just a good question. It is the question.

The ubiquity of the self-help infrastructure itself, from personal pursuit to billion-dollar industry, can give a wide hearing to any approach that strikes the right chord at the right moment. In “The Power of Positive Publishing: How Self-Help Ate America,” Boris Kachka quotes William Shinker, the former publisher of Gotham Books and the editor who discovered Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: “There isn’t even a category officially called ‘self-help.’”11xBoris Kachka, “The Power of Positive Publishing: How Self-Help Ate America,” New York Magazine, January 6, 2013, 1.

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