Self-help books do not offer pre-packaged solutions but they may empower you to seek solutions and they are becoming increasingly popular, at least in urban India.

When I first started writing a self-help book several years ago, I had to ask myself what on earth I was trying to do. Would people actually read a book to find answers to burning questions? Would the quality of their lives really change by merely reading a book? In the west — the U.S. and the U.K. — self-help books have established themselves as a popular genre. In fact, The New York Times' Review of Books that appears every Sunday and is often what most people use as their principal yardstick in making decisions to buy books, lists ‘Advice books' under a separate category, distinct from Fiction, Non-fiction, Graphic writing and Children's books. But what about in our country? Given that we operate on a ‘panchayatmode' when it comes to conflict resolution, would we be willing to buy a book to deal with our issues? I still had no clear answers to these questions when my first self-help book was launched in 2002. As it turned out, I needn't have worried, for, the response to not only my first book, but my subsequent books (all ‘self-help') was absolutely remarkable. It appears that educated urban Indians are perfectly prepared to use the self-help route to find answers.

Persisting stigma

However, as one of my email interlocutors asked me, If a marriage is coming apart or one has experienced extraordinary stress, wouldn't one do better seeking professional intervention than reading a book? In an ideal world, yes. But, in our country, there is still a strong stigma attached to seeing psychiatrists or counsellors. As a nation, we don't find it easy to seek help, especially when it comes to something like marriage or stress management that we are all supposed to possess natural expertise at (at best, we'd only consider approaching our family and friends to give us some counsel, however biased this may be). A book, though, can be read in relative anonymity and just like one finds it easier to open up to a stranger on a train, one might find it easier to establish an in-absentia-therapeutic relationship with the author of a book. Compared to suffering in silence, reading a book seems to me a pretty good option.

Expecting people to resolve all their marital or other problems by reading a book would be foolhardy. But what I do expect to happen when one reads a self-help book is that it might jump-start a process of seeking solutions. Rather than believe that nothing can be done, readers do feel empowered enough to seek solutions by talking, listening, reading some more, and maybe even talking to a therapist. In other words, reading a self-help book could be a very vital first step in moving out of the victim mode that most of us fall into when faced with a crisis, to a survivor mode that gets us out of emotional quagmires. But let us not for a moment believe that a book can offer us neat and pre-packaged solutions.

Increased choices

The way I see it, when one is able to obtain an understanding of the dynamics of a relationship such as marriage, or is able to understand what precisely happens in the course of a mid-life crisis or whatever crisis one is afflicted by, one is empowered to act more consciously and make more considered choices. Of course, a lot depends on how the book is written. If it's full of inadequately explained jargon (what has come to be cynically dismissed as psychobabble), then it certainly is conceivable that the reader might end up more confused than empowered. However it's hardly likely that such a book would be a best-seller. So there's a natural check and balance in place. I think the trick to using a self-help book is not to expect it to magically resolve all one's problems, but to rather think of it as a piece in a jigsaw puzzle (a corner piece if the book is a good one). In other words, the book is not going to change your life. But it can empower you to change your life.

That self-help books are here to stay is a well-documented fact of contemporary life. The truth is, we all need help and advice, whether it's on cookery, gardening, adoption, relationships or healing the soul. The sooner we come to terms with this reality the better. Before we dismiss this tendency towards using self-help books as a ‘Western' phenomenon, let us remind ourselves of the phenomenal success, in our own country, of the Chicken Soup series or John Gray's series of books on the Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus theme, among others. Obviously, Indian readers are willing to invest in self-help books. This will doubtless spawn a new generation of India-specific, quality self-help books in regional languages as well, and perhaps, sooner than later, self-help books will become a genre that will earn for itself an independent category in national best-seller listings. In the final analysis, if we learn how to use self-help books well — as sources of inspiration and mental stimulation than of solutions, we might well find ourselves browsing for these online or at our friendly neighbourhood bookstore, and not just at airport bookstores while we wait for our delayed flight to be called.

The writer is the author of the just-launched Fifty-50 Marriage: Return to Intimacy and can be contacted at vijay.nagaswami@gmail.com