Where Reading Novels Is a Waste of Time
By Laura Hoogenraad
We hear Carrie’s dramatic voiceover as we look at Charlotte browsing the self-help aisle after her divorce from Dr. Trey McDougal. Charlotte has a worried look on her face.
When she grabs one book (‘Starting over, yet again’), a crying woman seated on the floor exclaims, “It really helped me”, in between dramatic sobs. As Charlotte’s looks grow more worrisome, she replies, “Travel?” slowly walking away to another aisle, leaving the miserable people of self-help behind. In utter embarrassment she goes home and orders the book from Amazon.
Much has changed since this Sex and The City scene from 2002. In 2020, these books are a token of self-improvement in our quest to perfection. The self-help aisle is no longer the far corner of the shop solely destined for the hair-twirling, nail-biting type. Instead, Charlotte’s shame is dismissed by the millennial who embraces the idea of reinventing the self, funding a multi-million-dollar industry on their way.
“13 self-help books that will basically fix your life,” reads one recent Cosmopolitan article, featuring alliterating titles such as The Happiness Hack, Choose Wonder over Worry and The Defining Decade. The latter stresses that your twenties are the most important decade of your life and how you should “make the most of them now” (quite a stress-inducing subtitle to say the least). Books that promise ‘a better you’ are a new must for the healthy, mindful, ambitious young urban professional. Why?
The explosive growth of self-help books fits with the current era of self-improvement, productivity and happiness-obsession. There are apps tracking your daily steps, screen time, calorie intake or meditation-streak. There is a new craze around celery juices, silence retreats and cryotherapy (stepping into a room of -85°C, which reportedly boosts your immune system… yes, it’s really a thing).
Self-help books fit right into this trend. Of course, a generation’s endeavor to become healthier and happier is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does prevent people from turning off. And as the increase of burnouts among young professionals has shown (just as the endless books about the subject that followed): it is important to be able to shut off, to relax, without having to do something that’s necessarily productive.
Instead, book sales reveal that we would rather read about a theory involving your belongings sparking joy. Bestseller lists show the millennial’s obsession with productivity. Even in the late hours of the evening, or on holidays, there’s an urge to be productive. There’s simply no time to read novels because we have to learn how to be more time-efficient, make or save more money, cultivate healthier habits, make more friends, be cleaner, be more mindful, be smarter – all in the name of how to be happier. Stephen Covey, Marie Kondo and Charles Duhigg promise it all.
But at what expense? What happened to rereading Lord of the Rings on a lazy Sunday afternoon? Why are we not bringing Kafka on the Shore on our beach vacation but instead devote our precious time off to figure out why Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office?
The current fear of wasting time urges readers away from novels and towards self-help. This, I’d like to argue, can work counterproductively (to stick with the ominous P-word). In the spare moments when we don’t have to devote our time to deadlines, friends or our phone, let’s not make our leisure time into something that has to be ‘productive’ too. Instead, escape to Narnia, Hogwarts or District 13. Read about the ghost of an enslaved Black woman during the American Civil War, a captain’s obsessive revenge on a whale called Moby Dick, or the tragedy of a boy with striped pajamas – and transcend the daily rhythm of your own life.
A quick Google search reveals the countless benefits of reading novels. Literature is supposed to expand our horizons, teach us about the past, fuel empathy, provoke our imagination and reveal human nature with all its beauty, flaws and fears. Research showed that reading novels stimulates our left temporal cortex, which is the center for language reception and our sensorimotor region. This cortex is known to be able to trick the mind “into thinking it’s doing something that it’s not”, a phenomenon that transports the reader into the protagonist’s shoes, literally.
In 2018, The Washington Post reported that the number of Americans who read for pleasure has fallen by 30 percent since 2004. In the United Kingdom, research showed that in that same year just 51 percent of adults read at least one book in the whole year, also meaning that almost half of UK’s adults didn’t read a single book in those 365 days. Similar results of decreased pleasure reading are true for Germany, France, Italy and most other European countries.
Contrastingly, self-help books boomed. Marketdata, a market research organization, published the only study of the American self-improvement market. It estimated that the business, also including personal coaching, weight loss programs and audiobooks, has grown from a $9.38 billion industry in 2016 to a staggering $11.0 billion in 2018, an 18 percent growth in two years. Self-help books’ share of the market is $992 million, which is growing 8 percent per year.
A little after self-help began peaking, a contrary movement developed: anti self-help. With the international bestseller The Life Changing Magic of Not Giving a F**k by Sarah Knightat the forefront of this new mindset (its title being a direct response to Marie Kondo’s bestseller, The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up). This reactionary school of thought focuses on the message that there’s nothing wrong with you, that you don’t have to follow the however many rules to lead a better life. Instead, anti self-help promises to free you from the system in which self-help flourishes and encourages you to break its barriers (in Knight’s case by not going to your friend’s child’s birthday party if you don’t feel like it).
Social scientists have mostly critiqued the literary genre of self-help. Sociologist Nicolas Marquis mentions two of scholars’ main criticisms. Firstly, the problem of defining what constitutes as self-help literature, because it is not only extremely diverse (“from health to career success, from getting old to giving birth, from Buddhist spirituality to cynical materialism”) but also varies in quality and form. Secondly, Marquis mentions the worries about self-help’s effect on the promotion of individualistic values. Especially, the books’ aim to “urge everyone to behave like capitalistic apprentices in their private and work life”.
Next to Marquis’ worries, there is also a third obstacle: where do we place self-help in the literary landscape? What constitutes as ‘literature’ and what qualifies as ‘literary’? Self-help is generally seen as a subsection of the non-fiction genre, but here the borders of ‘literature’ get foggy. Is Churchill’s biography seen as literature? Probably. History textbooks? Not so much. What about The Power of Now? Unclear.
To find an answer to these questions, we have to look at the different types of reading: passive, practical and pleasurable. Passive reading befalls the reader casually; scrolling through a timeline, flipping through a magazine at the dentist. Practical reading is undertaken with a specific goal in mind like homework. Self-help books also fall in this category: the reader has the intention to learn a specific skill, habit or tactic.
The last type is pleasurable reading, which is what I regard as literature in its truest form. It is a story that is absorbing and that transports you to the protagonist’s shoes with all the benefits previously discussed. The sad thing is that by defending reading literature through talking about its benefits, the discussion fits right into a neoliberal society in which everything has to have a purpose.
This leans into another argument that many scholars make: it is about quality over quantity when it comes to reading books. In Time magazine, Annie Murphy Paul distinguishes the differences between carnal reading (“pragmatic and instrumental”) and spiritual reading (a “slow, unhurried progress [that] gives deep readers time to enrich their reading with reflection, analysis, and their own memories and opinions”). It is about how we read, and not how much or little.
Self-help fits within our current neoliberal economy and capitalist society, in which everybody and everything has to do more, be better and go faster. The focus on self-improvement urges us to be pragmatic readers, rather than unhurried deep readers. Instead of broadening our compassion by reading about life through somebody else’s eyes, self-help focuses on how we as individuals can perform better than others. By reading self-help-books, we are not taking away attention from our ego, but zooming into it.
Self-help, anti self-help… the difference is that one tells you how you should adapt to a capitalist society and flourish whilst the other tells you how to resist and be more resilient – but both focus on how to personally advantage of the system.
When Charlotte receives the book, an email pops up from Amazon with book recommendations: Lonely Women No Men, Love Hurts, I’m Fine – Now and Reservations for One. Frustrated Charlotte throws the book out of the window from her Upper Manhattan apartment. On the street it is picked up by a woman contemplating a divorce, who sees it as a sign.
Maybe searching for the perfect answer in a book is a generation-wide problem, even though the shame of it has disappeared. The most comforting thing about the boom of the self-help section, is probably the realisation that others feel the same things too. To end with a Bradshaw-esque question: in a world defined by perfectionism and productivity in which relaxation is a luxury and time is money – can literature remain simply fun instead of useful?
Laura Hoogenraad is a freelance journalist and an editor for RevUU. She was a managing editor for The Boomerang, a writer for online platform Red Pers, and is currently working at the online desk of De Groene Amsterdammer. She’s pursuing a career as an investigative journalist focusing on plastic waste, but loves to get sidetracked by literature. In her free time she cooks anything Ottolenghi.
“13 self-help books that will basically fix your life.” Cosmopolitan. September 2, 2020. https://www.cosmopolitanme.com/life/self-help-books-that-will-fix-your-life
“Cover Girl” (Season 5, Episode 4). Sex and the City. August 11, 2002.
Cooke, Kirsty. “Are people still reading physical books?” Kantar. March 6, 2019. https://www.kantar.com/uki/inspiration/sport-leisure/are-people-still-reading-physical-books/
Ingraham, Christopher. “Leisure reading in the U.S. is at an all-time low.” The Washington Post. June 29, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2018/06/29/leisure-reading-in-the-u-s-is-at-an-all-time-low/
LaRosa, John. “$11 billion self-improvement market is growing.” Marketdata Enterprises. October 16, 2019. https://www.marketdataenterprises.com/11-billion-self-improvement-market-is-growing-by-john-larosa/
Marquis, Nicolas. “Taking One’s Responsibilities While Facing Adversity: A Balanced Analysis of Self-Help Books Reading.” Sociological Research Online 24, no. 2 (2019).
Paul, Annie Murphy. “Reading Literature Makes Us Smarter and Nicer.” Time. June 3, 2013. https://ideas.time.com/2013/06/03/why-we-should-read-literature/
Tank, Ytekin. “Stop Reading Self-Help Books: The Incredible Power of Novels.” April 27, 2020. https://medium.com/swlh/stop-reading-self-help-books-the-incredible-power-of-novels-4805fa2d18d3