Self-help books: <br></br>More Time, Less Stress; <br></br>Women Who Think Too Much; <br></br>The Big Questions; <br></br>The War of Art

Christina Patterson is surprised to discover wisdom as well as waffle in her survey - but still finds it difficult to trust a man in a bow-tie
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

More Time, Less Stress, Judi James;
Piatkus Books £9.99, 282pp;
£9.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

Women Who Think Too Much, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema;
Piatkus Books £10.99, 253pp;
£10.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

The Big Questions, Lou Marinoff;
Bloomsbury £16.99, 384pp;
£14.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield;
Orion £6.99, 165pp;
£6.99 (plus £1.99 p&p per order) from 0870 8001122

I'm a glutton for self-help books. Like most women, I've spent much of my life vaguely wanting to lose half a stone. My bookshelves bear testimony to my efforts: the effort of splashing out on yet another fluorescent paperback and settling down to read it, usually with a nice glass of wine and a bowl of kettle chips. We all know, sadly, that the way to lose weight is to eat less. But an irrational part of our brain persuades us that maybe, this time the solution will be less unpalatable.

That irrational brain fuels the self-help industry and has me gravitating towards the Pop Psychology section at the first inkling of what Brits would call a problem and Americans a challenge. I know Tolstoy and George Eliot would offer more wisdom; but I don't necessarily want wisdom. I want answers and I want them now. As Carrie Fisher said in Postcards from the Edge, "Immediate gratification just isn't soon enough."

I don't believe in crystals, nor in Carole Caplin, but I do have some kind of residual belief in the magic between the covers of books. It's a primal pull that has to do with the book as talisman. The internet is, in comparison, irritatingly provisional, and, like the world in Louis MacNeice's poem "Snow", "incorrigibly plural".

Judi James's More Time, Less Stress is subtitled "How to create two extra hours every day". Who could resist such a promise? "Do you long to be able to make your life calmer and more ordered?" it whispers seductively. Where do I start? With lots of bullet points, and a willingness to implement advice offered up in soundbites. James's classification of the different categories of "perceptual time" ("nanotime"; "shopping at lunchtime"; "kill time") is followed by tips on "effective thinking", avoiding emotions that "slow you down", handling stress and assertiveness.

It's all quite zippy and cheery, with the vast majority of the advice culled, as in most self-help books, from the school of the absolutely bleeding obvious. Some of it, however, is a little less predictable. I have not yet purchased green, yellow and red plastic bricks for my desk, and told my colleagues "what the colours mean". Nor have I donned an "emergency garment" for thinking in a crisis and I'm not sure that I really want to watch "programmes like Friends" for tips on how to "look nice". In fact, I haven't done any of the homework because that's the whole point of reading self-help books. They're about procrastination. If I actually wanted to do something, I wouldn't be sitting down to read yet another book.

Such habits have occasionally provoked the unfair accusation that I am a Woman Who Thinks Too Much. Luckily, Susan Nolen-Hoeksema PhD has written a book especially for women like me, telling us "how to break free of over-thinking and reclaim your life". The first surprise is that there are some long paragraphs and you can't just let your eye skip from one snappy headline to the next. The next is that Nolen-Hoeksema not only presents a compelling argument, but draws on her own extensive research. Most self-help books don't bother with arguments. John Gray's Men are from Mars... series, for example, presents his man-as-elastic band, woman-as-well thesis as irrefutable fact, saving energy for detailed instructions on how to respect men's movements in and out of their caves.

Nolen-Hoeksema argues that "this epidemic of morbid meditation" afflicts many more women than men and is a cultural phenomenon associated with the need for quick fixes and "the entitlement obsession". The mechanisms she offers for reducing anxiety are, for once, not instantaneous, and amply illustrated with a wide range of moving examples. This is that rare beast: a sensible and compassionate self-help book that's rooted in complexity.

It's hard to trust a man who wears a bow-tie, particularly when his book is called The Big Questions: how philosophy can change your life. There's the sense of a healthy ego hovering over Lou Marinoff's discussion of the tenets and applications of Buddhism, Existentialism etc, and of the professor who glories in his popular touch. It's the American equivalent of the leather-jacketed don, the symptoms of which include an irritating, flip tone and an over-liberal sprinkling of exclamation marks!

Once he stops trying to dazzle us with his stupendous intelligence and grooviness, there's a great deal of interest. Marinoff is not in the same league as Alain de Botton, who tackled this subject with extraordinary elegance and wit, but this is still a journey worth taking, and one that will make you think, if not "too much".

Most surprising of all is Steven Pressfield's The War of Art, which exhorts the reader to "seize the potential of your life in three inspirational steps". Pressfield is the bestselling author of historical fiction set in ancient Greece. His title is an inversion of Sun Tzu's classic of warfare and the book an attempt to outline the nature of the war, or "Resistance", that comes between "the life we live and the unlived life within us". In spite of the pyschedelic jacket, the message is an extremely uncompromising one: anti-workshop, anti-support, anti-"healing", anti-excuses and pro-just getting on with the thing you need to do. It goes a bit weird at the end with a discussion not just of the Muse, but of angels, but even here it remains utterly beguiling.

This book is a gem. If self-help books are about built-in obsolescence, then here's one that breaks the mould. I will certainly read it again, but only, of course, after I've done some of the things I keep putting off.