EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


February 17, 2013

Can books really help us help ourselves, or are we addicted?

Losing weight, alleviating depression, escaping anxiety, eliminating procrastination, taking charge of your life, finding happiness, finding and keeping love, developing self-esteem, working through grief, getting past a divorce, tapping in to your potential.

These are all big-ticket life items that could easily require months, if not years, of professional guidance to achieve. More convenient and affordable — and certainly more popular — are self-help books. Their ultimate message is clear: If despair is the lock, hope is the key.

The thousands of these titles on the market and the millions of copies of them sold each year are testimony to our collective desire to improve ourselves — or at least to read about doing so. And with New Year’s resolutions still echoing in our ears, it seems there’s a plan devised by somebody, somewhere, for fixing almost anything that’s broken in us.

And yet the question remains: Do they work?

“Many (self-help books) can be beneficial, “ said Mark Kamena, president of the California Psychological Association. “They are a way for people to receive mental-health services without actually going to a therapist.”

As a genre, self-help books sell in such huge numbers that The New York Times includes them in its Sunday Book Review best-seller lists under “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous.”

Self-help titles glut the market, but sales figures are hard to come by because publishers won’t share the data. Still, informed guesstimates value the self-help-book arena at more than $1 billion a year.

That’s part of the overall $13 billion self-help industry, which includes seminars, retreats, CDs, infomercials, counseling by “life coaches,” “holistic” centers and companies like the business-oriented Dale Carnegie Training franchises.

Self-help even has crossed over into the realm of fiction, at least in the case of the recently released big-buzz novel “Love Is a Canoe” by Ben Schrank. In it, the fictitious author of a classic self-help book titled “Marriage Is a Canoe” questions his own advice when he must put it into practice for himself.

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