The self-help industry is slowly but surely making us all less dependent on ourselves and one another, and more dependent on the $24.95 salvation that comes between two hardback covers.

I’ve tried reading a few of these so-called “helpful” books, but was quickly bored when I realized one glaring fact: all of these books contain knowledge we already know. Now, this is not to say I know everything every self-help book has to offer, but I know most of what is held within the ones I’ve looked at. I’ve looked at ones concerning relationships, dependencies, coping with loss and others. I’m sure those of you who have read books dealing with problems you’re facing have come to this same conclusion. Why pay for someone to tell you what you already know?

Most of you are familiar with the incredibly popular, zillion-selling “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” series. Dr. John Gray keeps releasing these books, which deal with a ton of topics, including the relationship in the bedroom, keeping the relationship fresh and how to recover after walking in on your spouse on the can. I’m not sure about the last one actually, but I wouldn’t at all be surprised if it’s on the shelves tomorrow.

Let’s figure out why these books are so popular and why you gain nothing from reading them. Do you think these books break new ground on how relationships should be handled? Not likely. The books are popular for the same reason Jerry Seinfeld is a popular comedian: we all know it to be true. Seinfeld gets his laughs because he tells jokes based on reality, based on things that happen to us on a daily basis. Similarly, Gray sells books because his tips are about things that have happened to us in every relationship we’ve been in.

You don’t just sit down and write a self-help book based on what you think to be true. Okay, only in the accepted case of Shirley MacLain, but that’s it. Self-help books written in accordance with what one thinks are filed under Fiction or Biography or are simply not published. In order to write a book of that sort, to have it published and to have it sell, you must do extensive research. You must talk to hundreds, if not thousands of people and tabulate their answers. Then you must analyze that data, decipher the patterns and trends, and, finally, put it into written word. Either that, or you can write for a magazine and pretend to know what you’re talking about when, in reality, you don’t have a damn clue.

My point is, after having done all of that research, after talking to all of those people, obviously you come to believe, and consequently write about, what the majority already knows. Relationships encounter problems because men and women are two very different creatures, way past apples and oranges. Men are shallow and women are emotional. Women need attention and men need a La-Z-Boy and a cold beer. Men want women to understand their primal needs and women want men to understand their feelings. But you already know that. You’ve spent your life dealing with and adapting to it. You don’t need some stranger, someone who’s done research on a thousand people you’ll never know, telling you how to live. Use your head! Make your own decisions. Work your problems out with yourself. Or, and this may seem completely out of the question, ask a friend! People know a lot. And I’m not talking about those smiling, touched-up faces on the inside of book jackets. I’m talking about the people you hang out with on the weekends, the people you call your friends. Give them $24.95 and let them tell you what they think. Nine times out of ten they’ll say the same things as the book you nearly bought.

I realize some people truly do need help. They’re so deep into their emotional holes they feel there is no escape. I’m not discouraging you from seeking help, but I’m encouraging you to seek it from yourself or someone you know and trust. What right does some face, some unknown have to tell you what they think and how you should live your life? Just about as much as I do, huh? Touché. We’re all much bigger than that. We all have minds and brains and we are more than capable of using them to overcome. The mind is more powerful than any computer, any book, any thing. The mind is a tool that is sorely under used. If we only use an eighth of our brain (or whatever the hell that fraction is), we must use even less of our mind.

To prove my point, I took my ideas on the road. I set up camp in a major bookstore in the Orlando area and questioned people about buying self-help books. Three people were there when I arrived—two men and one woman—all looking like they were very uneasy being there. I approached the man standing alone and, after failing to come up with some crafty introduction, simply went for the basic name and purpose routine. He was not at all interested in speaking with me but said he was, “looking for something for a friend.” He was obviously lying and I’m sure he was looking for a book about coping with loneliness, the ugly bastard. Hey, he wouldn’t talk to me! I had to get him back! I moved on to Lady X.

As I approached her she was holding a book by, you guessed it, Dr. Gray. She had the original in her hand, the first in the series. I told her my situation and she agreed to talk to me. Jackie is a 30’ish woman. She is married and, although she said her marriage was going great, she “wanted it to be better.”

“Why do you think you need to read this to improve your marriage?” I asked.

“It’s not that I think I need to read it” she started, “but I guess it can’t hurt. A few of my friends have read it and they keep telling me how true to life it is and how much I’ll agree with it.”

Bingo! I was already in the door. “So they told you it’s true to life and you’ll agree with it? Why do you need to read it then? It seems like if you’ll agree with it you already think that way.”

After pausing and running her fingers over the cover of the book, she looked at me, shrugged her shoulders and said, “I guess you’re right. I didn’t think of it like that. I guess it’s all about reassurance, but I guess that’s something I need to get from my husband. I probably wouldn’t even be here if I had more of that.” We talked for a few minutes longer and then she left, without the book.

Many people came and went, but most of them understandably didn’t want to talk about their reasons for being there. I actually persuaded three people not to buy books that night and I had a crowd of about five people around me at one point, but the best discussion by far was with some guy, I’ll call him “Surfer Dude.” Surfer Dude came cruising in wearing long shorts, a stained T-shirt and the remnants of hi-tops. Surfer Dude picked up “When Bad Things Happen to Good People,” one of the books I’ve thumbed through. I approached him, albeit cautiously, and he was, well, cool with talking to me.

“Why are you checkin’ out that book, dude?” I asked. Hey, I was being P.C.

“Because bad shit keeps happening to me, man” he said. “It’s really bringing me down and I’m about through with it.”

He started to go into detail about the “bad shit” in question, but I cut him off after hearing how his board was “confiscated from his porch.” Mind you, this is a real conversation.

“That sucks,” I said. “But that book isn’t going to do you any good. You can work things out on your own, can’t you? That book tells you things you already know. Talk to your friends, work it out on your own.”

“Well, why does bad shit happen then?” he asked me.

Great. Just great. Here was the death of my story and the beginning of my downfall as a free-thinker. “I’ve looked through that book a little bit and here’s the gist: bad things happen, well, just because they do. It’s no fault of yours. It’s just that life can’t always be good.”

“That’s some serious shit, dude” he said. Then he put the book back, shook my hand and walked out of the store.

Enough said.

Back to April/May 1997 issue