Frontiers

Reading Between the Lines

Doctoral student Beth Blum examines a new take on the self-help genre.
April 2012
You’ll find it near the back of most bookstores: the section promising to cure your blues or, if you’re already of the sunny disposition, help you craft a gourmet meal. Self-help books claim to offer up solutions to even the most obscure problems. Few, however, turn to modernist authors to help steer their moral compass. But in recent years, some commentators have begun to do exactly that, arguing that we should approach modernist classics like Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses as nothing less than “self-help manuals.” Beth Blum, a doctoral student in the English department, was so intrigued by these modern literary how-to guides, she began research for her eventual dissertation, “Proverbial Modernism: Literature & the Self-Help Hermeneutic, 1880-2012.”

“Modernist literature is not generally known for its useful advice,” says Blum, “but I began to notice the proliferation of these unique self-help books using modernist novels as sources of counsel. This led to my discovery that the self-help industry emerged alongside modernism at the end of the nineteenth century. My dissertation explores the reciprocal influence between these two movements.”

The infamous industry began in 1859 when Samuel Smiles coined the term with his publication of the best-selling Self-Help. And while modern self-help books of the Dale Carnegie tradition are oriented toward professional ambition, Smiles and his contemporaries were focused on helping the individual make society better. Modernist authors viewed the rise of self-help with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. Blum says that contemporary readers look back to these modernist books for wisdom because of their moral reticence and complexity, which lends them credibility in this wary modern age.

“Virginia Woolf famously killed herself, Proust spent his last years bed-ridden, Joyce struggled with poverty, exile, and illness—these were authors exploring the uglier sides of modern existence like failure, disappointment, and marginality. These are things that typical self-help manuals tend to either gloss over or assimilate into their positive-thinking ethos.”

“Modernist literature is not generally known for its useful advice, but I began to notice the proliferation of these unique self-help books using modernist novels as sources of counsel. This led to my discovery that the self-help industry emerged alongside modernism at the end of the nineteenth century.”
– Beth Blum

On the topic of Proust, in her dissertation Blum analyzes Alain de Botton’s modernist self-help guide, How Proust Can Change Your Life. De Botton examines a scene in which Proust describes a romance between characters Swann and Odette. When Swann first meets Odette, he thinks she’s “not his type.” But as their relationship develops, Odette starts keeping odd hours and carrying on with other men and Swann becomes consumed by jealousy. Proust uses this to theorize about the nature of desire.

“It’s a darker version of the idea that absence makes the heart grow fonder,” Blum says. “De Botton posits Proust is suggesting that the threat of infidelity is essential to a healthy marriage. Although it’s a slightly disingenuous interpretation of Proust’s story, it nevertheless reminds us that, despite his stylistic complexity, Proust is still investigating universal human problems of love, jealousy, and desire.”

In considering why these guides have just recently begun to surface, Blum points to the so-called “crisis in the humanities” that calls into question the humanities’ role in an increasingly skill-based job market. The quandary has led some academics in the humanities to investigate very basic questions about the use of literature, including why people read and what kind of practical purpose art serves. “This movement suggests that modernism was actually more engaged in practical and moral thinking than previously thought,” Blum says. “In the end, the value of the self-help readings is their ability to show these complicated, avant-garde works to be surprisingly relevant to readers’ lives.”