Secret Self-Help

When we talk about books, we hardly every talk about how they help. It is unfashionable: Browsing the self-help section of a bookstore seems as shameful as picking up a porn magazine at 7-Eleven. Interviewers seldom ask authors, “How is your book meant to help people?” (Instead, they ask the impossible, “What does it mean?”) Yet authors write with the hope of helping readers and themselves—by untangling emotional, intellectual, and existential problems. Perhaps contemporary literary culture doesn’t talk about books’ utility as a way to justify their lofty status as precious, impractical objects. But we can have the best of both worlds. Here’s a list of books I love specifically because they’ve actually helped me—they’re both precious and practical. Let’s call them “secret self-help,” though, really, that phrase can describe almost all literature.

The Problem of the Puer Aeternus by Marie-Louise von Franz

The title phrase is the Jungian term for a person who can’t (or won’t) grow up. Reading these lectures on the subject by erudite analyst Franz is a completely terrifying, shameful experience—like watching your own autopsy. Her surgically precise diagnosis makes me wish I’d lived my flighty life differently—and maybe I still can!—because the eternal child’s prognosis is dire: “despair and emptiness . . . there is no life . . . like a coward, [they] build bridges by which to escape.” So I try to remember this book’s lesson: sticking with something can be painful, but suffering means maturing, and attempting to avoid pain will keep you a child forever.

The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis

Lewis’s wisest and wittiest book on Christianity, this novel is a collection of letters from a demon named Screwtape to his nephew, Wormwood, both employees of hell. Screwtape instructs Wormwood on his new job: how to sabotage a young man away from his burgeoning interest in the church and God. Wormwood is the voice in the man’s ear, exploiting his moments of restlessness, laziness, boredom, and cynicism. Screwtape advises: “Let [the man] assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition.” Lewis’s book describes my every gesture of faithlessness so cunningly that I now have a perpetual Post-it note in my head: “Fight Wormwood.”

Wabi Sabi by Andrew Juniper

It’s easy to get carried away with the idea that one has to make a perfect, immortal work. But in wabi sabi, a Japanese Zen–derived aesthetic philosophy, such an aim is ugly. Embodied in wabi sabi is a rejection of perfectionism and permanence. It suggests that beauty in art should echo beauty in nature: asymmetry rather than symmetry, and decay rather than preservation. It values “humility, modesty, and a keen eye for small details.” When my work is going badly, it is usually because I’m trying to do something unnatural: build a permanent, perfect obelisk to celebrate my own glory. To drive away this need, when I actually have to finish a task, I reread Wabi Sabi, a modest and carefully written book.

Audition by Michael Shurtleff

Famed Broadway and Hollywood casting director Shurtleff, who discovered Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, and many other stars, identifies the bad choices actors make when auditioning (for example, unflinchingly staring into the eyes of another actor, something people never do in real life). This book is equally useful for job interviews, first dates, or any situation where it helps to be more engaged. When we are bored or being boring, Audition offers essential counsel: “Make choices that give you the maximum possible involvement.”

Book of Beauty by Diane von Furstenberg

There’s an ongoing conflict in the heart of any good feminist who has read Naomi Wolf’s Beauty Myth but still wants to be “beautiful” anyway. Furstenberg’s book advises on nutrition, dressing up, exercise, and bathing rituals, and her message is comforting: A happy woman is a fulfilled woman, and part of being fulfilled is feeling beautiful. However, “you cannot go against the nature of your body and you shouldn’t try to.” Furstenberg’s conviction that the desire to look great is not a patriarchal illness, but a natural and fine longing, allows me to, guiltlessly, fuss with my hair.

The Patient Who Cured His Therapist by Stanley Siegel

Siegel, a New York–based psychotherapist, relays twelve patient’s stories, explaining in detail the course of their treatment. His starting point is reassuring: You’re not fucked up at heart. It may seem like you are, but only because you’re not examining what your problematic behaviour or situation solves. Siegel believes that people are loyal and generous by nature, and dysfunction is the result of an overactive need to function in difficult circumstances—a radical and respectful philosophy, and a genuine relief.

Sheila Heti is the author of the