All you need is ... a book

By Alex Clark

Why are we so enthralled by the pronouncements of the latter-day gurus of self-help, asks Alex Clark.

Self-help guru extraordinaire, Tim Ferriss. Photo / Wkimedia Commons image posted by user Olivier Ezratty
Self-help guru extraordinaire, Tim Ferriss. Photo / Wkimedia Commons image posted by user Olivier Ezratty

Pretty much my favourite moment of the week came when I took delivery of two compendious volumes by Tim Ferriss, self-help guru extraordinaire and the writer whom Amazon has selected to launch its New York publishing arm next year.

Following the immense success of The 4-hour Work Week, published in 2007 and now a New York Times best-seller, translated into 35 languages, and its equally popular successor, The 4-Hour Body, the online retailer has decided to ramp up its move into originating rather than simply selling books.

Consequently, it will publish Ferriss' new epic of "lifestyle design", The 4-Hour Chef, in print, enhanced digital and audio formats - and hope to sit back and reap the rewards.

But back to the delights of my bumper book package. I gravitated first to The 4-Hour Body, perhaps enticed by its subtitle, "An Uncommon Guide to Rapid Fat-Loss, Incredible Sex and Becoming Superhuman". And I was not, it transpired, the first, because the 572-page book immediately flopped open at a chapter entitled "The 15-Minute Female Orgasm".

Even better, on closer inspection, it was also labelled "Part Deux" (the Frenchification is never explained). Presumably, its previous handlers had skipped Part Un on the basis that it might merely rehearse familiar and useless exhortations to warm baths, scented candles and mutual respect (it doesn't, actually: rather, it informs you, among other things, about sensitive female spots.

Part Deux promises you, by way of Hippocrates, some really quite off-putting line drawings and a series of "masturbation homework assignments", total satisfaction of the kind that will make you, in Ferriss' words, feel like you're "playing for the coolest Little League team in the world". In other words, it sheds whole new light on the term self-help manual.

Well. Your newspaper would not get to you in tandem with your morning croissants if its writers spent their days testing the efficacy of every crazy new life-enhancement scheme that crossed their desk, so we must reluctantly leave Ferriss and his orgasms there and cast our gaze on the wider picture.

That Amazon has identified Ferriss as a potential John the Baptist - and possibly even Messiah - for its new enterprise is hardly surprising. His books - chunky syntheses of snippets of expert advice, anecdotes, case studies, lists and boxes - are eminently adaptable to a variety of formats and media. It would be unlikely, for example, if his foray into the world of cooking doesn't involve filmed demonstrations.

Ferriss has an extremely large fan-base which, by the comments left on his website after the Amazon announcement, is utterly devoted - "You continue to amaze me"; "This is going to be awesome!"; "Yesssss!" - and, therefore, liable to buy anything he produces, as well as other Amazon offerings.

He is also, evidently, delighted to be a pin-up for the new publishing order, commenting: "I truly believe that Amazon can change all of publishing for the better." And last but hardly least, Ferriss is publishing into a genre that has proved so inexhaustibly lucrative that if one were to combine all the tried-and-tested bywords for get-rich quickery - El Dorado, pyramid schemes, snake oil, timeshares and credit default swaps - it wouldn't do.

We are nothing, now, without our libraries of Dale Carnegie and Allen Carr and Louise Hay and Paul McKenna; immobilised without anyone to advise us not to sweat the small stuff or urging us to feel the fear and do it anyway or to sup our regular transfusions of chicken soup for the soul.

Did Samuel Smiles envisage this, way back in 1859, when he published his paean to industry and personal improvement, Self-Help?

He was no stranger to the idea of the extended portfolio, adding the titles Character, Thrift and Duty to his oeuvre over the following two decades. But it seems unlikely that he would have approved of what characterises much of Ferriss' approach - the idea that vast improvements can be made to one's life with the minimum of effort.

Overtly geared to life in an accelerated culture - one in which the thought of patiently amassing knowledge, expertise and discernment is anathema - Ferriss' books offer their readers a heady blend of distilled wisdom, road-tested practical solutions and motivational speaking, all wrapped up in a laid-back, jokey, we're-all-in-this-together style.

Their insights are not world-shattering: I kind of already knew that to secure cheap travel I had to book my tickets well in advance, and that if you want to be more efficient at work, it's a good idea to prioritise; the fact that Ferriss also tells me a jolly story of how he won the gold medal at the Chinese kickboxing national championships is not in itself enough to produce a feeling of Damascene revelation.

Similarly, although I'm attracted to his notion that I should release myself from the empty promises of a "deferred life-plan", distribute a series of "mini-retirements" throughout my life and thereby join the "New Rich", I might wait for a more favourable economic climate before I trot along to my boss' office to suggest we hold a staff meeting along precisely those lines.

Much of what Ferriss - and the others on whom we so readily confer guru status - proposes is common sense, although I reserve judgment on the suggestion that eating 700g of ribeye steak and/or taking a cold bath will grant me a sound night's sleep. The secret of these latter-day saints' phenomenal success must therefore be that we simply do not trust ourselves or those close to us to administer the hard word more directly. In the more measurable arenas of life - DIY, say, or baking - one can easily see how instructional books make good the declining practice of skills being handed down from generation to generation.

But personal development? Do as you would be done by, work hard, make sure your outgoings don't exceed your earnings, don't go out in dirty underwear in case you have an accident and eat an apple a day don't really cut it, publishing sensation-wise.

Shame, because I think I would have quite taken to the life of a guru. Perhaps on the next go-round, once we've hit on the 10-point plan that does away with pesky death altogether.

Now that really would get Amazon going.

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