The original self-help book was by a Scot named Samuel Smiles and was called—what else?—Self-Help. Predictably, it was a massive hit:
[Self-Help] sold 20,000 copies within one year of its publication. By the time of Smiles’ death in 1904 it had sold over a quarter of a million. [The book] “elevated [Smiles] to celebrity status: almost overnight, he became a leading pundit and much-consulted guru.”
Self-Help was published 150 years ago this year. Thanks to the good ol’ public domain, you can read the bestseller in its entirety on Project Gutenberg, but Naomi Alderman, writing for London’s School of Life, pretty much sums it up:
For the modern reader, Self-Help is frankly pretty dull. […] There’s no real line of argument. Instead it’s a compendium of hundreds of stories, all on the same pattern:
1) A young man (and they are almost all men) grows up poor or disadvantaged;
2) He conceives an ambition but is repeatedly thwarted;
3) Nonetheless, he perseveres, and works extremely hard;
4) Finally, success! Self-Help certainly isn’t part of our modern ‘quick-fix’ culture.
Phase 3 of this process often lasts for decades.