Books interview: Anna Katharina Schaffner

The cultural historian and author of The Art of Self-Improvement on positive transformations, the Stoic approach to life, and what self-help books can reveal about individuals and society

October 25, 2021

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
I loved tales with positive transformations at their core – tragicomic narratives in which flawed heroes and heroines overcome their inner demons, usually (but not always) emerging wiser and happier. Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is one. Another is Ronja, the Robber’s Daughter, by Astrid Lindgren.

Which books initially piqued your interest in self-help literature and made you want to explore in depth this huge (and often rather patronised) field?
I have always been interested in psychoanalysis and developmental psychology, and in the possibilities of self-improvement. At some point, I noticed that most self-help literature mixes improvement advice with ideological assumptions about selfhood, agency and personal responsibility. Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos is an extreme example. I became curious about how self-help can function as a barometer for cultural anxieties and aspirations. It can reveal insights into shifting values, changing conceptions of the relationship between the self and the social, and what constitutes the good life.

Can you give a particularly good and a particularly bad example of self-help writing?
Among modern self-help books, my favourite is Russ Harris’ The Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living, which is based on principles from acceptance and commitment therapy. It proposes concrete techniques for creating a healthy distance between ourselves and our emotions, our thoughts and our unproductive self-narratives. Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, by contrast, peddles a deeply irresponsible idea of cosmic magnetism and the law of attraction, suggesting that our thoughts invite everything that happens to us – good or bad. Generally, I find self-help books problematic if they focus only on performance and efficiency, disregarding broader ethical questions and social, cultural and psychological forces. The over-valorisation of personal agency brings in its wake the assumption of an absolute personal responsibility for our fate and puts the blame for failure firmly on ourselves.

Which school of thought do you believe offers particularly useful life lessons?
I am a big fan of Stoic thinkers, such as Seneca and Epictetus, and especially of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. The Stoics differentiate between what we can and cannot change. They deem all external circumstances beyond our control, and recommend that we not waste our time fretting about them. Instead, they suggest that we focus our attention exclusively on our inner reactions to external events. For they believe that we can fully control these inner reactions to and judgements of external events – with rigorous reasoning.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
I recently gave Minna Salami’s Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone, a beautiful meditation on different ways of knowing, to a good friend.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Prosocial: Using Evolutionary Science to Build Productive, Equitable, and Collaborative Groups, by Paul W.  B. Atkins, David Sloan Wilson and Steven C. Hayes, and Dispatches from a Time between Worlds: Crisis and Emergence in Metamodernity, edited by Jonathan Rowson and Layman Pascal.

Anna Katharina Schaffner is professor of cultural history at the University of Kent. Her latest book is The Art of Self-Improvement: Ten Timeless Truths (Yale University Press).

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Print headline: Shelf life: Anna Katharina Schaffner

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