The self-help industry has exploded into a multi-billion dollar global industry – and along with it has come every imaginable type of therapy, healing or general woo-woo.
In this extract from Self-helpless: A Cynic’s Search for Sanity, Rebecca Davis looks at South Africans’ appetites for books promising to solve their problems and just how far we are willing to go to get our hands on these books.
Self-helpless: A Cynic’s Search for Sanity
Pan MacMillan South Africa
The next time you visit a branch of Exclusive Books, have a look around for a glass display case which is kept locked.
To inspect something within it, you have to call a store attendant with a key to open it up for you.
This is where they keep the books that are most frequently stolen from the store.
I was browsing at the Exclusive Books at the V&A Waterfront when the cabinet in question caught my eye. Here’s what it contained.
A number of volumes about Black Consciousness and prominent figures of the movement.
Some novels which were clearly prescribed setworks at schools or universities: JM Coetzee’s Disgrace; Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart.
And below these, for rows and rows and rows: self-help books.
Rich Dad Poor Dad.
The Road Less Travelled.
The Power of Your Subconscious Mind.
The 50th Law, which is rapper 50 Cent’s bestselling contribution to the self-help genre.
And Why Men Love Bitches: From Doormat to Dreamgirl, which could serve as an explanatory subtitle to the movie Grease for aliens.
How should we react to the news that the most stolen books from South African bookstores are self-help volumes?
If you are stealing a self-help book from a shop, I think it’s fair to say that you’re approaching rock bottom.
But on the positive side: you clearly know that. Perhaps we should applaud your attempt to seek a way out, albeit in a criminal manner.
There’s something pretty desolate about a society where people are willing to risk mail jail in order to get their hands on a book promising to solve all their problems.
I find this doubly poignant because over the course of my year of spiritual exploration, I would go on to read a shitload of self-help books.
Let me break it to you straight: the vast majority of these volumes are not worth leaving Exclusives in handcuffs for.
An appetite for self-help is by no means a particularly South African quirk. We are minnows in the global market for self-help.
In fact, there is a real gap in the market for a South African self-help guru.
One of the only people currently attempting to fill it is former bank robber-turned-politician Gayton Mckenzie. Mckenzie’s books feature prominently in the Exclusive Books theft cabinet I mentioned earlier.
Mckenzie publishes his books in collaboration with his bestie, Kenny “Sushi King” Kunene, and he sells them in quantities that would make most South African authors murderous with envy.
On his website, which gives the price of his books in dollars – Mckenzie doesn’t mess around – he claims that A Hustler’s Bible: Words To Hustle By was a “no.1 national bestseller”.
This is entirely possible.
In his second self-help book, 2014’s The Uncomfortable Truth, McKenzie veered away from teaching people how to hustle, and decided instead to teach women how to keep a man.
It is a fabulous read for any woman looking for the necessary inspiration to embark on a mass shooting.
“When the bedroom door closes, no man has time for crossed legs,” McKenzie warns women.
Don’t be like that. Be the girl who “likes to be pounded like they’re a piece of steak being tenderized under a butcher’s hammer”.
The Uncomfortable Truth was also a runaway success for Mckenzie, so there is clearly a market for these folksy ideas.
His title choices are also inspired. Self-help titles featuring the definite article plus a noun are guaranteed smash hits in this industry.
The Secret. The Rules. The Uncomfortable Truth. They scream authority. They scream uncomfortable truths.
More provocative titles are also currently very much in vogue. It’s a trend that seems to have originated with 2015’s The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck.
One is tempted to point out that you clearly do give a little bit of a fuck if you can’t write “fuck” without an asterisk on the front cover, but that’s not the point.
Irreverent, cheeky, even downright rude: these qualities are very now in the self-help world. Presumably consumers interpret a blunt use of earthy language as evidence of refreshing “I-call-a-spade-a-spade” wisdom.
There’s another phenomenon on the rise in self-help publishing at the moment, I rapidly discovered.
It consists of books reassuring grown-ups that it’s perfectly fine to do nothing, say nothing, think nothing.
For recent big hits of this nature, please see Pause: Harnessing the Life-changing Power of Giving Yourself a Break, or Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, or Women Who Think Too Much: How to Break Free of Overthinking.
Turns out all adults want is for another adult to whisper soothingly that they should really consider having a little lie-down.
Books giving grown-ups permission to retreat from the hellish demands of modern adult life are only one part of a wider trend sweeping the self-help industry beyond publishing.
That trend consists of allowing adults to regress to an infantile state of safety and comfort.
One of its most extreme recent manifestations has been the Japanese practice of Otonamaki, or adult wrapping.
In these therapy sessions, adults are literally swaddled in cloth from head to toe and then gently rocked from side to side – like a newborn baby.
I’m disappointed to say that this craze has not yet reached South Africa. But something you can do locally is buy yourself a “weighted blanket” online. These are blankets filled with pellets to give them special heft.
When you wrap yourself in one, they are intended to replicate the feeling of being securely held.
They were originally developed for use by children with autism – but are now increasingly in demand by anxious adults too.
Then, of course, there are adult colouring-in books – another aspect of this apparently widespread desire to give up on doing your taxes and revert to sitting on a tiny plastic chair with a crayon.
As I discovered when dabbling in this world, it is apparently almost compulsory for adults to colour in mandalas.
Some of the only alternatives are minutely-detailed leaf or flower patterns.
If you were the type of sloppy child who found staying within the lines to be a massive snore, as I was, let me assure you that your feelings are unlikely to have changed with the passage of time.
Perhaps one reason why adults want to re-do their childhoods might be that some of us didn’t pick up on the basics the first time around.
I say this because a number of recent self-help books are premised on the following: Take the kind of crushingly obvious instruction every mother should give every child, and stretch its wisdom over the length of an entire book.
I read a number of these, but my stand-out favourite was William H McRaven’s 2017 bestseller Make Your Bed: Small Things That Can Change Your Life…and Maybe the World.
McRaven, a US navy commander, informs us in his book that one reason why Saddam Hussein met a sticky end was because of Hussein’s persistent failure to make his bed.
McRaven was tasked with interrogating the dictator in his Baghdad cell every day towards the end of Hussein’s life, so he saw the unmade bed with his own eyes. And he judged it harshly.
You might argue that Saddam Hussein came unstuck for a few reasons beyond his ruffled sheets, but personally I’m not interested.
As a long-term believer in the psychological benefits of bed-making myself, I greeted McRaven’s theory with unbridled glee.
“Why must we make the bed?” I now ask my wife daily, while smoothing down the duvet.
“Because we don’t want to end up like Saddam,” Haji dutifully replies.
It’s already changed our lives.