It has been pointed out in this space before that a number of the titles you'll find shelved under self-help in your local bookshop are, on closer examination, farragos of wooden-headed tripe, written by mountebanks and halfwits. (I'm not talking about Paul McKenna, obviously.) But the sheer growth of the field has given a new injection of energy to something just as annoying: the anti-self-help movement. It's easy to tell when you're in the presence of an anti-self-helper; key phrases to listen for include "therapy culture", "backbone" and, "I was beaten to death with a hammer every week at Eton in the 50s, and it never did me any harm."
Therapy Culture, actually, was the title of a book by the University of Kent sociology professor Frank Furedi, who personifies the older, more distinctively British version of anti-self-help. We're turning into a nation of feebletons, Furedi argued, what with our post-Diana compulsion to wallow in our emotions. A certain variety of socialist has never had any truck with the idea of self-improvement, and Furedi, who once chaired the Revolutionary Communist party, took this argument to its logical conclusion - that it's almost always wrong to seek help from popular psychology, because it's like religion was for Marx: it anaesthetises the workers, holding them back from overthrowing the state.
According to the American version of anti-self-help, recently put forward by the author Steve Salerno, the problem is the exact opposite: it's not that we are feeble, but that we're encouraged to imagine ourselves invincible, capable of limitless achievements - and so we're doomed to crushing disappointment. "Does it not make sense that a society in which everyone seeks personal fulfilment might have a hard time holding together? That such a society would lose its sense of community and collective purpose?" Salerno asks in his book Sham: How The Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless. His argument is far more serious than Furedi's, and it's been much in evidence recently in the response to The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne, currently Britain's bestselling mind/body/spirit book, which advocates solving your depression, anxiety or lack of fulfilment by thinking really hard about owning cool stuff.
Anyone who mocks The Secret is fine by me. But turning this into an indictment of all self-help is silly: the fact that there are people willing to exploit our appetite for guidance or comfort isn't an argument for trying to disavow the appetite itself. Some high-profile advice givers are high profile because they're charlatans; others because they're right. This is an argument for practising discernment - which is mercifully easy when it comes to pop psychology in book form. Does the publication have shiny gold foil on the cover? Does the title contain the word "perfect", or "cosmic", or the phrase "in seven days"? Does it feature a person with ostentatious cosmetic dentistry? If so: do not buy. If not, it might not be worthless - although it's probably a good idea to hang on to your receipt all the same.