One of the drawbacks of working in a bookstore, something I did for many years, is that it can be like working in a small-town pharmacy: You learn things about people you might rather not know. What sort of face do you put on when your new girlfriend’s mother comes to the counter with a Newt Gingrich novel, a scented candle and a copy of “The Herpes Survival Guide”?
Self-help books are fraught with peril. There is the peril of being caught with one or having a guest find it in your bathroom, tucked behind back issues of The Economist. There is the peril of taking crackpot advice. There is finally the peril, given the subprimate level of intelligence and wit in most self-help books, of leading millions of your innocent brain cells into the killing fields.
Alain de Botton, the philosophy-minded Swiss writer (“How Proust Can Change Your Life,” “The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work”) who has long resided in England, has begun issuing a new series of books, written by himself and others, titled The School of Life. A better and more aspirational name for this series might be Self-Help Books for the Rest of Us.
These books are small, well under 200 pages. Their publicity material warmly extols their “French flaps,” “deckle edge” and “handy, giftable trim size.” They’re damnably cute. To carry one is to announce, “If I am toting a book this foxy and literate-seeming, how bad can my troubles really be?”