Self-Help Meets God: A Classic Approach | Collection Development

Self-help: the term evokes the busier aisles of the bookstore and some of the most popular ranges in any local public library. It is also, as we know, a category of writing, publishing, and reading subjected to a great deal of mockery and satire in the public sphere and, perhaps, deservedly so: there is a kind of rapid reach for easy conclusions and at times a haste in writing and structure that leaves self-help writers and readers vulnerable to the most contemptuous sort of criticism.

When we think about self-help, we imagine that we know what we’re getting: tips on time-management, personal discipline, and relationships and the view that yesterday’s successes in the field are much like today’s. Yet it is one of the most durable interests among writers and readers both, and in recent decades there has been an increasing convergence of self-help and the more traditional genre of spiritual writing—or, to put it more accurately, the long and deep connection between the genres is more and more openly acknowledged by recent generations of authors and readers.


On closer examination, it becomes more, not less, difficult to disentangle the two genres: self-help, as an aspect of spiritual improvement, and spirituality, as an element of self-help, prove to be remarkably antique and distinctively, although not uniquely, American.

On the face of it, there ought to be every sort of difference between writing that springs from the traditional faiths of humanity and self-help. Spiritual writing usually draws its strength from, and correspondingly emphasizes, obedience to the doctrines of a particular faith, church, or denomination and often urges readers to look toward the community of faith as part of the individual’s armamentarium, whereas self-help stresses interior contemplation and freedom from formula.

On the other hand, anything that elevates the soul ought to improve the most pragmatic aspects of daily life, so isn’t anything from the one field eligible for consideration in the other? Conservative adherents of any particular faith, including the latest orthodoxy, atheism, would insist that that’s not the case, but in fact there has been a stronger convergence between popular approaches to spirituality and hitherto secular guides to daily life.

Publishing pulpits

The fastest-growing part of the catalogs of many religious publishers, especially conservative or Evangelical Christian publishers, has been homely tips to husbands and wives or teens or addicts or the disaffected, peppering advice that sounds a great deal like Dale Carnegie with apposite Scriptural citations. In the last 25 years, moreover, there has been a remarkable growth in the numbers of unchurched Christians, or Christians seeking or founding new and nonaffiliated congregations or churches, and there has been an even greater number of Americans who self-identify as “spiritual, but not religious.” The classics of spiritual self-help exert a particular appeal to today’s generation of spiritual seekers.

Your library’s collection

A readers’ library in self-help/spirituality titles for most public libraries is apt to feature a perhaps curious mixture of sturdy classics and the very latest titles touted by the self-help prophet of the moment, and the latter category will merit fairly frequent weeding. A few more considerations deserve thought. Some evidence suggests that self-help titles in general have a stronger female than male readership, although publication trends don’t suggest a corresponding majority of titles with female-­exclusive appeal. As such, while it may not be necessary for selectors to seek out books addressed to women, they should bear in mind that many of the titles that appeal to a universal readership will be circulated to women readers and ought not to alienate them actively. Self-help titles, even more than spirituality titles, are especially appealing to readers interested in alternative or nonprint media: almost all of the titles under discussion have Kindle, ebook, or CD formats and in many cases it will be cost-effective for libraries to obtain books in multiple media, or, even in the case of works of more ephemeral appeal, “e” or recorded formats only. Some of the prolific publishers of recent self-help and spirituality titles include HarperCollins, New World Library, Tarcher/Penguin, Hay House, Shambhala, and Inner Traditions. Yet some self-help or spirituality titles are the singular success of an otherwise unremarkable publisher, and some writers in the field self-publish or seek out very small houses. Selections in these fields are also heavily driven by local reader interest and may be shaped by locally given seminars and workshops, so it’s prudent to anticipate requests for titles by currently popular motivational speakers or popular writers offering signings or appearances in your area.

Because of the rapidly changing nature of the field, these selections emphasize the sturdy classics and are meant to outline a core library of reliably popular titles; a few contemporary standouts and still-productive writers fill out the list. Both self-help and spirituality are areas in which successful writers tend to capitalize on their successes, so where a notable or popular title is named, there are usually several more to add to a library’s shelves, often many more.

Perspectives of the Faiths

Covey, Stephen. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Pr: S. & S. 2004. 384p. ISBN 9780743269513. pap. $15.95.

While Covey’s book is perhaps not as explicitly spiritual as some self-help titles, his emphasis on character and values reveals his Church of Latter-day Saints background very powerfully; interested readers may want to go on to his 8th Habit or The Leader in Me.

The Dalai Lama. The Art of Happiness. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). 2009. 352p. ISBN 9781594488894. $25.95.

The Dalai Lama is one of the most productive and respected writers in spirituality, and with this title, first published in 1999, he effectively reached audiences well beyond his international Buddhist readership and made a large and lasting impact on the field of psychology.

Kushner, Harold S. When Bad Things Happen to Good People. Anchor: Random. 2004. 176p. ISBN 9781400034727. pap. $12.95.

This celebrated work of theodicy by Rabbi Kushner is more directly a work of spirituality than self-help, but it has led to a wave of titles that address nondenominational readers more directly, including Kushner’s own Living a Life That Matters (LJ 8/01) and Overcoming Life’s Disappointments (LJ 7/06).

Peck, M. Scott. The Road Less Traveled. Touchstone: S. & S. 2003. 320p. ISBN 9780743243155. pap. $16.

Peck, a nondenominational Christian and a psychiatrist, wrote one of the most widely read and respected titles in self-help; he acknowledges the discipline necessary to love others and foster personal growth.

Santora, Frank. Turn It Around: A Different Direction for a New Life. Howard: S. & S. 2010. c. 224p. ISBN 9781416597575. $22.99.

Santora’s touching book on error and recovery for the Christian identifies seven missteps and offers ways to retrieve ourselves, reminding us all the while that God’s love is as effective as our errors and mishaps. (LJ Xpress Reviews, 6/18/10)

Schuller, Robert H. Tough Times Never Last but Tough People Do. Bantam. 1984. 240p. ISBN 9780553273328. pap. $7.99.

Schuller’s impact on the American religious scene can hardly be overstated as the founder of the Crystal Cathedral and the Hour of Power. A nominally conservative Christian, Schuller famously emphasizes God’s grace and love over human sin or divine judgment, and this is the book in which he most emphatically stated his belief that we can achieve our dreams through God and positive thinking.

Warren, Rick. The Purpose-Driven Life. Zondervan. 2002. 334p. ISBN 9780310205715. $21.99.

Warren is the wonder of Christian publishing—this, his most successful book, has sold over 30 million copies and applies the focus and approach of self-help to Christian ­audiences.

Williamson, Marianne. A Return to Love. HarperPerennial: HarperCollins. 1992. 260p. ISBN 9780060927486. pap. $15.99.

Williamson is the great explainer of the strange and controversial text called A Course in Miracles and as such is perhaps the best representative of a new kind of post-Christian spirituality. This title is her memoiristic account of the application of the course to her own life.

Artists & Archetypes

Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book About Men. Da Capo. 2004. 288p. ISBN 9780306813764.pap. $15.

Poet Bly had a surprise hit and publishing phenomenon with this rich meditation on the application of folklore, archetype, psychology, and history to an enriched sense of manhood that goes beyond empty ­machismo.

Cameron, Julia. The Artist’s Way. Tarcher: Penguin. 2002. 237p. ISBN 9781585421466. pap. $16.99.

Cameron’s book, now in its tenth edition and accompanied by several spin-offs and sequels, ignited a mini-industry in personal creativity. Her writing has affinities with Eastern spirituality but is eminently ­practical.

Fields, Rick with Peggy Taylor & others. Chop Wood, Carry Water: A Guide to Finding Spiritual Fulfillment in Everyday Life. Tarcher: Penguin. 1984. 304p. ISBN 9780874772098. pap. $18.95.

This book almost single-handedly created the field of writing on spirituality in ­quotidian tasks and went a long way toward making the New Age Journal, and the New Age, household words. A powerful influence for mindfulness in everyday life.

Gibran, Kahlil. The Prophet. new ed. Oneworld. 2012. 128p. ISBN 9781851689453. pap. $12.95.

There are many editions of this 1923 book, one of the unstoppable triumphs of the last 100 years. Gibran’s poetic prose, half New Testament and half Walt Whitman, is used as serious advice and spiritual counsel by millions. This is a new, annotated edition.

Harris, Maria. Dance of the Spirit: The Seven Steps of Women’s Spirituality. Bantam. 1991. 240p. ISBN 9780553353068. pap. $16.

Very direct in its spiritual roots and gently encouraging to women without moving far into feminism, Harris’s influential title asks women to view their lives as spiritual journeys with predictable aspects.

Millman, Dan. Way of the Peaceful Warrior. HJ Kramer: New World Library. 2009. 232p. ISBN 9781932073256. $24.95.

Similar in certain ways to Paolo Coelho’s later Alchemist, this book urges readers through a mixture of counsel and lightly fictionalized narrative to cherish awareness and spiritual strength rather than traditionally masculine values.

Pearson, Carol S. The Hero Within. HarperSanFrancisco. 1998. 368p. ISBN 9780062515551. pap. $14.99.

Pearson’s influential work, like the popular Joseph Campbell television series on myth, applies Jungian ideas to modern life but is less academic and more personal.

Mystics & Everyday Healers

Baldwin, Christina. The Seven Whispers: A Spiritual Practice for Times Like These. New World Library, dist. by PGW. 2005. 128p. ISBN 9781577315056. pap. $14.

Baldwin, author of Life’s Companion, Storycatcher, and Calling the Circle, concisely urges readers to adopt prudent courses that will lead to peace of mind, openness to surprise, acceptance, and return to real (rather than virtual) life.

Chopra, Deepak. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success. New World Library, dist. by PGW. 1994. 115p. ISBN 9781878424112. pap. $16.

Chopra is perhaps the most noted self-help writer living and the darling of those interested in alternative medicines and spirituality. His work marries Eastern and Western ideas, as his medical practice incorporates Ayurvedic practice into Western knowledge. He is a prolific writer—readers taken with him will want to see his 2012 title, Spiritual Solutions, as well.

Dyer, Stephen. Real Magic: Creating Miracles in Everyday Life. Morrow. 2001. 352p. ISBN 9780060935825. pap. $14.99.

Dyer is now a familiar face from many television appearances, but this was the book in which he united an explicit spirituality to his work on self-actualization; successor volumes include Your Sacred Self and There’s a Spiritual Solution to Every Problem.

Gawain, Shakti. Creative Visualization. New World Library/Nataraj. 2002. 192p. ISBN 9781577316367. $25.

Gawain’s book, originally published in 1978, generated an entire technique still used for therapeutic, creative, and developmental purposes, and she has gone on to write other popular titles, including last year’s Living in the Light and this year’s ­Developing Intuition.

Hansen, Mark Victor & Jack Canfield. Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit. Health Communications. 2001. 308p. ISBN 9781558749207. pap. $7.99.

One of the most familiar gambits of spiritual writing is the life story that has a lesson to impart, and this book, now the progenitor of dozens of offshoots for focused readerships, pioneered the idea of offering dozens of brief and differing stories to make a point. This original title is now out of print but easily available from third-party sellers. Selectors may want to obtain several titles in the series for local interest groups.

Hay, Louise. You Can Heal Your Life. Hay House. 1984. 251p. ISBN 9780937611012. pap. $14.95.

This was the first success of Hay, the most notable spokesperson for New Thought, the idea that thought can alter material realities, including illness. Hay, who published this work herself, has gone on to write many follow-ups, including this year’s Painting the Future, and publish works by Deepak Chopra and Wayne Dyer.

Hillman, James. The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling. Grand Central. 1996. 352p. ISBN 9780446673716. pap. $13.99.

The inspiration for Thomas Moore (Care of the Soul), Hillman espouses a kind of altered or refined Jungian notion of the essential self to encourage readers to make real choices.

Silver, Tosha. Outrageous Openness. Urban Kali. 2011. 182p. ISBN 9780983681700. pap. $19.

This recent title collects some of the columns originally published as “Spiritual Examiner” at Silver uses humor and wit to underscore the ways we can discover the divine in ourselves day to day.

Sinetar, Marsha. Ordinary People as Monks and Mystics. Paulist. 2007. 183p. ISBN 9780809142842. pap. $14.95.

Sinetar, a popular current author in self-help, uses interviews and stories to examine varying paths toward self-actualization through focus and aloneness.

Tolle, Eckhart. New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. Plume: Penguin Group (USA). 2006. 336p. ISBN 9780452287587. pap. $14.

Tolle, author of The Power of Now, shows here in this book, touted by Oprah Winfrey, how transcending the needs of the self might help not only us but our world.

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  1. Just a small correction, Real Magic: Creating Miracles in Everyday Life is by Wayne Dyer, not Stephen.