13 November 2007

Help Yourself

A patron came up to me today, at the library where I work and asked me if I knew any good inspirational books.

I hesitated.

"Like a good self help book," she added, avoiding direct eye contact through out.

Well, if this is not a loaded question . . . . . I don't know.
Seriously, one man's inspiration is another man's jazz album, or Chilton's repair manual, or muffin cookbook.

I began thinking back over my life thus far and which books have inspired me to write, which books have inspired me to cook, which books have inspired me to take up snow boarding (no such book), which books have inspired me to be brave and which books have inspired me to read more books, and I asked this woman if there was any particular area in which she was looking for inspiration.

"In everything," she said.

I sat in a staff meeting of about twenty five fellow library employees not long ago and as a type of ice breaker we went around the room sharing what types of books we read. (An exceptional and unusual ice breaker, if you ever need one.)

There was a great representation: mysteries, romance, biographies, comic books, historical fiction, junior paperback, true crime, graphic novels, you name it. Many people mentioned their preference for specific authors: Grisham, Steele, King, Rice, Rule, Canfield, Ambrose, Chopra, Suess, Dahl.

Almost everyone gave a couple of answers. I've noticed working at the library that people can be a bit snobbish about what they read. "Well, I only read non-fiction," is the sniffy comment I've heard the most often in the course of my work. Or sometimes, "I only read biographies." Heavy emphasis on the 'only.'

Later that day, I thought back over all the answers and tried to think of any genre that might have been missed. I couldn't think of anything. Then it hit me. Self-help. Not one person there admitted to reading self-help books, including myself.

I believe any book can be inspirational, if it's read at the exact moment it's message is needed. (Some, if only by their example of 'how not to do it.') Fiction, non-fiction, adult or children book. If today I am feeling overwhelmed and defeated and without hope, I may find inspiration where I least expect it. In Goodnight Moon or The Night Before Christmas. The words of JK Rowling might be just the thing I need to get me started off on a completely new life's course. Who knows.

Typically however, we tend to think of self-help books as those filled with instructions for fixing what is wrong with us. Anger problems, weight loss, health issues, financial dilemmas, depression and such. Not the type of difficulties we are encouraged to confess socially.

But I confess.

I have borrowed, purchased and checked out many self help books. I want to read about and learn better ways, if they exist. And they almost certainly do, sometimes. What I have failed to do with most of these books however, is finish them. They usually lose me about a third of the way through. I believe the title and the marketing blurbs on the cover. I'm still in for the first few chapters, but mostly I don't see the finish line. So maybe someone should write a book on how to finish a self help book.

I have finished a few. A couple I absolutely love and am so glad I stumbled across. Some I was unable to benefit from (but at least I finished them).

I wish I'd thought to admit that I read self-help that day in the meeting. People just don't go around waving that flag and I fell right in line with the thinking that there is something embarrassing or shameful about needing help and seeking it. This is craziness.

I am happy to say that I don't know it all, that I have a lot to figure out. Well, okay not 'happy' exactly but willing at least. I wish I did have it all figured out. But I don't.

And neither, by the way, do most other people.

News flash. Our culture is conclusive evidence of how much we don't know. But aside from that, do not forget that I am the one checking in the material that pretty well represents what people read and guess what. . . . . we're reading self help, whether we say so out loud or not. I easily check in more self help, inspirational-type material than any other category of library items.

So I don't know who those fellow library employees thought they were kidding that day. And they may actually be reading the complete works of Shakespeare but they are also reading The Idiots Guide to Sex and many, many others.

And good for them!