Shelf Help (Part 1)

0. Is That Shelf Help Or Self? đź“š

Behold the one-and-only upright citizen in the pic above—upright at least in the sense of standing tall and not necessarily indicting its supine brethren on charges of indolence—and observe how it’s decked with tape flags. Oh yes, a terrific book, and one that I stumbled on not so long ago, its pages hold rich inroads into altogether familiar territory. (More on that soon.)

Behold, too, how it is situated smack center in the admittedly ragtag collage, heralding its title as

The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature by Beth Blum (Columbia University Press)

Going from outward appearances to its interiority, something tells me that this book’s firmament—brilliantly original in conceptualization as it is—will be no stranger to regular readers of our blog: If you like what you read here on a routine basis, chances are that you, too, will enjoy The Self-Help Compulsion.

Published in early 2020, this book’s got vision: Maybe that’s why they decided to time its publication with a certain year. (Hey, hindsight is 20/20, as they say?) Seriously, though, a book that has the singular mission of marrying literature with modern life gets my attention any day of the year.

But first, and anticipating some confusion to result from the DIY slant of the title—”Shelf Help”—I hasten to stave off the early onset of bewilderment by saying up front that the essay you’re reading has nothing whatsoever to do with happenings such as how

  • Old Mother Hubbard’s cupboard was rather bare, warranting shelf-help to stock up its shelves.
  • Your local lumber company—think DIY—needed all-hands-on-deck, and Bob the Builder was to be found nowhere. (The tired young soul just happened to be on an extended vacay.)
  • The last of our standing brick-and-mortar bookstores—vestige of a cultural phenomenon on the brink of extinction—needed a fleet of brave booksellers to help undo the entropy wreaked on its orderly bookshelves by ever-curious, ever-exploring patrons.

Okay, so the last of points above does have a grain of truth to it. In all seriousness, though, The Self-Help Compulsion has a lot going for it: Let’s unpack it slowly.

1. Mohsin Hamid And Virginia Woolf On A Collision Course 🚧

I found The Self-Help Compulsion: Searching for Advice in Modern Literature (henceforth SHC) by Professor Blum—an Assistant Professor of English at Harvard University (henceforth Blum)—an altogether satisfying book, one which struck a chord with me at many levels. I’m going out on a limb to say that this riveting new book is destined to become a classic.

To better understand the gravitas and wherewithal of SHC, it’ll do to glance at Blum’s interests, which are: Modernism; contemporary literature; the history of self-help; sociology; the history of advice; and charisma. And to which I’ll add: A deep understanding of said interests is on full display in the pages of SHC.

Did you ever think that a connection could be made between literary luminaries—Samuel Beckett, Mohsin Hamid, and Virginia Woolf for example—and the art of living a good life? If so, the answer is delightfully spelled out in SHC. It’s entanglement (of modern literature and shelf-help, excuse me, self-help advice) all the way down.

Blum explores how and—more importantly—why people keep turning to literature to quench their (seemingly) insatiable thirst for down-to-earth advice on living a fulfilling life. Go figure.

And yes, taking but a page from the firmament of literature from two eras, one modern (with Mohsin Hamid as one of its exemplars), the other harking back a century (with Virginia Woolf as one of its exemplars), Blum perspicaciously delineates how these two luminaries of the of the literary firmament are on a veritable collision course. You simply have to read SHC to find out how (and why.)

(Hmm… How did my books, the ones huddled around SHC in solidarity—at least three of the four in The Programming Imagination Series—make it into the pic above? This must be a mixup; I need to have a word with my editorial staff. Pronto.)

2. Whither, DIY Culture? ⛵

Simply put, this book’s beautifully written: My writerly self appreciated the care that has obviously been lavished on making the narrative flow oh-so smoothly. I saw, with pleasing recurrence, flashes of brilliance at once reminiscent of the balanced prose from the inimitable William H. Gass, and on the other hand by the “Goldilocks”—aka “just right”—conciseness of expressiveness of Ursula Le Guin’s unparalleled (nonfiction) work.

And yet, the lovely book that is SHC remains workmanlike—and work-womanlike, to be sure—without in the least being plodding; an approach clearly justified by the goal of grappling with the vast scope of the sprawling subject matter. Put another way, and taken together with my previous point, I can say with optimism that I look forward to a future book in which Blum can share her eloquence by engaging with perhaps a subset of the subject matter—thinking of a less expansive scope—one which thereby does not fetter her writing style, by lending itself to more-in-depth writing forays.

Should your heart desire to know where the Do-It-Yourself (aka DIY) culture is headed, SHC is your book.

3. The Adaptive Bent 🏄

If you’re curious as a cat—oh my, the owl in the pic above is looking askance at who’s trying to outdo him in the realm of curiosity—and you should be curious (at least according to the author of the book sporting Ms. Owl on it’s cover), then you owe it to yourself to witness a tour de force of synthesis in the pages of SHC.

And that brings me to the subject matter proper: Immensely relevant to my own interests as reflected by my written works—both in my blog and in my published books as part of The Programming Imagination Series—this book ties together so many threads as I could not have imagined possible. As a long-time practitioner of computer programming and allied technologies, it has been (and remains) my fervent desire to demonstrate that a practitioner can care as much about the craft of prose as about designing code.

I’ve made an attempt to braid exactly such a thread elsewhere. But I digress.

4. Why People Read 🍎

Why, oh why, do people read in the first place? Now tell me that.

So it is, I’m happy to say, and in an indescribable way, too, that Blum’s gem of a book gives me fresh hope for the possibilities; this situation clearly calls for a rereading of the book, one to which I’m already looking forward, and with relish. What’s ineffable now will surely crystallize on a second reading; if not, then a third will have to do.

(Reading, oh reading; so many books, so little time.)

Speaking of which, and looking to the pic above, the books themselves are doing the “talking.” If you recognize any (or, better still, all) of them, please write to me. One in particular, the one occupying the top spot in the stack of books, gazing heavenward, and bearing the weight of the butterflies-emblazoned fine china medallion—Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code, 2nd Edition, by Martin Fowler—is all about the art of making improvements, aimed not at our (own) selves but at the digital artifacts we humans fashion in the cast of our selves: our computer programs.

But I digress, though on a close tangent dare I say.

5. Of Mobility And Agency đźš‚

Forget about temples of text—though I won’t stand in your way of reading the sublime prose of William H. Gass, trashy at times but sublimely trashy all the same—and check SHC for the scoop on everything mobility and agency.

This book (SHC) is strikingly original, and its metaphors apt. I have only to glance at the copious highlighting in my copy of the book to be convinced that this one’s a keeper: I’ll be keeping my copy handy, to serve not only as enjoyment, but also as a rich source of ideas (and inspiration) for the essays I sally forth to write and publish around here.

One more time, and looking to the pic above, a ragtag collection of books is doing the “talking.” If you recognize any (or, for that matter, all) of them, please share your thoughts with fellow readers. (Toward the end of this post, there’s a section, boldly proclaiming “Your Comment Here!“, which is parceled out for that exact purpose.)

6. And Who Gets The Last Laugh? 🎭

Detecting a change of scenery?

Yes, we moved our collage setting from a prosaic, stain-proof berber carpet—gotta watch out for those inevitable pet accidents—to the vaunted top of a piano. (Stay tuned for more that awaits you in Part 2 of an essay series, of which this is but the first part.)

In sum, and let this suffice for now, for anyone with the slightest interest in modernism, in contemporary literature, in sociology, and of course in the ever-expanding universe of advice—all checkmarks for me—and how these threads interleave and inform one another, SHC is not to be missed.

Meanwhile, I’m signing off, have essayed as best as I could to show and tell. What Part 2 of this essay will hold for you (and for me), only time can tell.

Wait, one last thing…

Behold the word “bildungsroman“, one that popped up unbidden while writing up this essay, and one that I had to look up, if only to make sure it fit the theme we’ve pursued here: Evidently, this curious word (bildungsroman) has nothing whatsoever to say about the buildings that Romans built—which is just as well, heh, given the prime example of one such building, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, that splendid freestanding bell tower, which has, um, garnered a certain notoriety worldwide for its nearly four-degree lean, the result of an unstable foundation—and instead signifies “a novel about the moral and psychological growth of the main character.”

You see, having dispensed with some shelf-help of sorts—think of all the bookshelves that await you, lined up with wisdom-bearing books that clamor for your attention—let’s be grateful for the growth that has been, hopefully, a part of this admittedly book-lined journey.

Dare I say that a different kind of growth, one from the oxygen-laden regions of a leafy plant—knowing that a healthy mind needs a healthy body, we want our lungs to keep growing, too—has decided to accompany the following pic that serves as the bookend to this essay.

See you next time, in our forthcoming installment, “Shelf Help (Part 2).”

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