Best books to help you crack January
Definitive guide to the most useful self-help books to ease the pain of this month of self-flagellation
Published 17/01/2016 | 02:30
Help. It's January - again - and what have we to show for it? Are we leaner, richer, calmer, wiser, as we so fervently intended? Perhaps only wiser. Last year, we had really been trying to change - or, at least, we had been reading about trying. The book sales are there to prove it, buoyant by grace of the ballooning market for "self-improvement" works.
What seems to sell at the moment is the promise of calm. Four centuries ago, Pascal wrote that all man's miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone. If he was right, there should be a great deal more discontent now weighing upon us, hyper-connected and overstimulated.
Our urgent desire for tranquillity must be behind last year's publishing phenomenon. Amazon's bestselling title of 2015, outstripping E L James and Harper Lee, was a colouring book for grown-ups: Millie Marotta's Animal Kingdom had sold almost 500,000 copies by Christmas Day. Marotta rationalised its runaway success as "a much needed distraction from the 'grown-up' world"; a novel way into Pascal's quiet and solitary room.
And for publishers, it was a fat year for self-improvement all around. Even the bestselling cookbooks had a distinctly worthy edge: out with the suet and chocolate; in with the avocado. The breakaway star was Deliciously Ella, the gamine nutritionist beaming her way through a dairy-free, wheat-free, sugar-free, meat-free regimen.
Come 2016, particularly in this first month of self-flagellation, there will be plenty of self-help books to choose from, all hoping to coax us out from vicious mental blocks to bring some form of joy: whether through eating the meaty diet of a Palaeolithic hunter or living as if it were always Groundhog Day, or purging our earthly goods and tidying what remains into neat origami folds, like the Japanese.
To survey the self-help landscape, I sat down and tried to read all the forthcoming titles. In morale terms, it was a mistake: you shouldn't mix your drinks, or your saviours. My doubts began among the diet books, most of which rely on our faith in the new. Both Broth by Vicki Edgson and Heather Thomas and The Soup Cleanse by Angela Blatteis and Vivienne Vella announce that souping is the new juicing (warmer, too). This gracefully dethrones the old fad to satisfy restless neophiles but in such a way that there will still be a use for their expensive NutriBullets.
Another diet stakes its authority in the distant past. The Paleo Diet: Healing Bible by Christine Bailey argues that our guts have not been able to evolve as rapidly as our behaviour. Thus we still carry the internal piping of a Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer, despite civilisation having advanced through cow raising and wheat farming all the way to sandwich spread and strawberry laces. In dietary terms, a human stomach is bemused by dairy, wheat and refined sugar, since it was expecting roots and slabs of beef.
The Paleo Diet satisfies common sense and the palate: endless poached eggs and steaks are allowed, with as many vegetables as one wants (but white potatoes are out). It is similar to a dairy-free Atkins diet, albeit with a dimension of historical re-enactment.
There is a pristine innocence to The Paleo Diet that appeals, a whiff of Arcadia. But is it really ethical to eat so much red meat and poultry, each morsel so costly in carbon and water to rear? One could be a Paleo vegetarian, but there would be an awful lot of tofu, which might make it harder to say.
In contrast, a lifestyle regimen with little patience for those who wallow in the past is to be found in Spark Joy by the Japanese tidying guru Marie Kondo. It is an elaborated version of her 2014 The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying, the success of which was so astonishing that it has spawned a crass parody, The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*** by Sarah Knight.
Kondo's thesis is that objects should "spark joy" in your hand if they merit a place in your life. If they do not, they should be thrown away. Kondo is superbly didactic: sometimes barking ("Let me be very clear"); sometimes fey ("Start with clothes you wear close to your heart. Can you guess why? Because that's where you feel joy - in your heart, not in your head"). One chapter is titled "Store Bras Like Royalty". The book is clearly a kitsch classic.
Outside tidying and diet plans, there are few crisp divisions to be drawn. Read en masse, self-help books blur into indistinction, partly because their defining precepts can get buried in jocular digression; partly because, to entrap the reader, all try to tell a novel in the second person - the one-size-fits-all Story of You.
For example, in The Success Code by John Lees, which advises shy people in business on how to come out of their shells without morphing into pseudo-Alan Sugar horrors: "You're at a conference taking coffee between seminars. A new face looms towards you: a gleaming smile, a firm handshake, a business card is offered. Two sips of coffee later you're being bombarded with a speech: a network ambush."
Or in Calmer, Easier, Happier Screen Time by Noël Janis-Norton: "Your child or teen has managed to convince you to let him have screens in his bedroom. Your child or teen is on a device after midnight."
Although these two stories portray different lives, the incantatory "you" makes them easily muddled, as do their overlapping concerns: that we are forgetting how to converse.
Another reason that this year's self-help books shade into one another is because most are hawking, more or less overtly, mindfulness, the meditation method that is on its way to being enshrined as a panacea. Crudely described, it is Buddhist meditation minus all the other beliefs; the mind must observe its thoughts dispassionately - accepting that anxieties are there without actually feeling anxious, for instance.
Unfortunately, Ruby Wax's frenetic Mindfulness Guide for the Frazzled is more successful at infecting the reader with Wax's original mania than with her new-found calm. Following her 2013 memoir about depression, Sane New World, this how-to guide is also confessional. However, Wax has not reconciled her comic voice, that of a highly strung Jew, to her Zen message: "New York is gang rape on the senses" jars with "bring your point of focus back to your breath, back to where you feel more peaceful and present".
The best book to deal squarely with mindfulness is a more conventional memoir, and far better written. Into the Magic Shop by the neurosurgeon Dr James R Doty recounts his childhood initiation into mindfulness (although in the 1960s it had no such name) by an eccentric old lady in a magic shop in California. Whereas most self-help books sketch out the slippery concept of "you", in whom the reader may or may not recognise themselves, Doty's first-person account is far more engaging, a worked example of the abstracts. The Wisdom of Groundhog Day by Paul Hannam is amenable for a similar reason. Hannam suffered from depression, but believes that the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray, taught him everything he needed to know about happiness. In the film, Murray plays a conceited weatherman trapped in the same day, cyclically, until he discovers the secret of happiness. The trick, Hannam argues, is to embrace human interaction and relish the small pleasures of each moment.
Mindfulness has its part to play in Hannam's advice, but he doesn't freight it with all his hopes. There is no panacea. Even "mindful" colouring can backfire.
"I will sit there worrying if I'm going to mess it up," wrote Lucy Fyles, a 24-year-old colouring enthusiast, on her blog last year. "I might colour that green, but what if I get it wrong, what if it's too green?" © Telegraph