Self-help books: The secret vice

Am I alone in having an embarrassing passion for self-help books — or at least for certain kinds of self-help books? When I was a kid I devoured paperbacks with titles like “How to Make More Money,” “Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary” and “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” But it didn’t stop there. I studied “Sisler on Baseball” and “The Bluejackets Manual”—full of guidance to innumerable knots and splices — and “Scarne on Cards” (there was a time I could actually deal seconds) and, in college, “Emily Post’s Guide to Etiquette.” Periodically, I would buy a Berlitz or Teach Yourself book devoted to Italian, Spanish or Russian, with wild hopes of mastering these languages. I even own “The Steel Square Handbook” — a complete guide to using carpenter’s squares. (There was a time I used one a lot.) When I began to collect books, I read “how to” books by John Carter, Percy Muir, and a half dozen other experts.

Somehow I’ve always believed I could learn anything from a book. (Now where did that notion come from?) I’ve got car repair manuals and plumbing manuals and house-hold repair manuals. I buy travel guides to any place I’m likely to go and Idiot’s guides to this Mac laptop I’m writing on and “Retirement for Dummies” and fat volumes devoted to the best classical recordings and tiny booklets about choosing wine and huge advice-laden tomes about all sorts of other things. A decade ago, for instance, I grew interested in men’s clothes and soon acquired the various works of Alan Flusser, best known for designing Michael Douglas’s outfits in the original “Wall Street.” I spent many a happy evening over “Clothes and the Man” and “Dressing the Man.” About this same time I also started studying a series of manuals devoted to exercise, weight training and jogging — as well as various stern guides to healthful eating. Somehow, reading these books encouraged me to keep on my regime of avoiding cookies and kept me going to the gym regularly — a practice from which I have fallen away and somehow need to restart. Time to break out some of those old gym books.

Do other members of the reading room share a covert passion for works of self-improvement? Would you share some of the kind of books you’re partial to and which you might even recommend? Do you, by chance, have other secret book vices that you are willing to reveal? Please share your guilty pleasures, if you dare, with the rest of us.

Michael Dirda

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