Informal guides to behaviour have existed almost as long as writing itself, with some originating as far back as Ancient Roman times. Indeed, Ovid’s “Art of Love”, with tips on where to go to meet the opposite sex and how to keep them satisfied in the bedroom, is not overly different from the dating manuals of today. In the Middle Ages, conduct guides aimed at women became extremely popular, dictating how polite young ladies should behave, speak and dress. Today, self-help books are still very much in demand, with around 2,000 new titles coming out every year. Most of these works promise to improve some aspect of your life – to help you to become more successful, gain confidence, stop smoking, or find Mr or Mrs Right. Whatever your problem, you can guarantee there is a book that swears to have the solution.
Despite their popularity, self-help books have as many critics as they have die-hard advocates. Many psychologists condemn the genre for its reductivism, sensationalism and misrepresentation of expected results, citing studies which show that in reality, only fifty per cent of people are successful at self-administered treatment. Authors and advertisers have been criticised for exaggerating the potential for change and the speed at which it will happen, in order to attract those looking for a quick fix and sell more copies. Critics say that readers can sometimes make things even worse for themselves, becoming addicted to self-help books as they search for the answer to every woe imaginable. Indeed, the genre tends to send out the message that every person has the power to transform themselves almost instantaneously, perhaps encouraging those who are unable to change to feel like even bigger failures. Even Bridget Jones, fiction’s most famous self-help disciple, has her doubts about its effectiveness, commenting that “Maybe it helps if you've never read a self-help book in your life.”
As dubious and over-hyped as they may be, self-help books are a deeply entrenched cultural and literary phenomenon. The following list of titles have sold millions upon millions of copies around the world and made their authors rich beyond their wildest dreams. Though some readers come away from the books disillusioned and disappointed with their performance, many others have successfully used them to make real improvements in their lives. According to clinical psychologist Joseph C. Kobos, the more popular a self-help book, the more valuable and substantial it is likely to be. Just don't expect it to work magic.
10 How to Win Friends and Influence People: 16 million + copies
9 The Secret: 20 million copies
8 The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: 20 million copies
7 Rich Dad, Poor Dad: 26 million copies
6 Who Moved My Cheese? : 26 million copies
5 Your Erroneous Zones: 35 million copies
4 You Can Heal Your Life: 35 million copies
3 Men are from Mars, Women Are from Venus: 50 million copies
2 Think and Grow Rich: 70 Million copies
1 Chicken Soup for the Soul: 130 million copies
Chicken Soup for the Soul is a collection of motivational essays and true stories about ordinary people’s lives, compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. After the book was rejected by numerous publishers, it was finally accepted by a small firm called HCI, and became a roaring success. Readers loved the inspirational tales and more books were released, many of them aimed at specific audiences. The series now contains over 250 titles and the company has branched out to produce comfort foods and pet food. There's even a talk show and a movie lined up for the near future.
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