Thursday, 13 June 2013

With All My Might

I used to work on a charity bookstall that set up once a week in a hospital near where I lived. I enjoyed it but one thing that always surprised me was the kinds of books people wanted.

While there were regulars - a couple of mothers who would bring their children along to try to find new bedtime fodder; a man who wanted nothing but ecclesiastical history; a migrant student needing textbooks on management theory - on the whole ours was a passing trade. Over the course of three or four hours, we'd probably serve 40 or 50 customers - (I wanted to say 40 or 45, of course:

but restrained myself) - and almost all of them were there just once.

In other words, over the space of a year we probably encountered a couple of thousand people across our trestle tables. Out of those 2,000, I would calculate that a minimum of 1,800 had pretty much the same request.

"Excuse me, have you got anything on self-improvement?" "Could you show me your self-improvement section?" "I'm sorry to bother you but I'm looking for self-improvement. Do you have any of those?"

I found this dispiriting. Apart from the fact that such books are almost all texts of such banality and tedium that no-one should feel the need to drag their eyes across their pages, the impulse itself is so full of forlorn humility.

How has the world given so many people the message that they are not good enough? Was it always the same? Did the majority of us always find ourselves wanting - and, if so, against what are we measuring ourselves?


  1. The outer wall of the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Bethesda, Maryland, has four or five quotations on metal plaques. One is from a comedian whose name I forget, and runs rougly "I asked her where the self-help section was, and she said, 'I could tell you, but that would defeat the purpose.'"

    1. If only I'd thought of that, it's v funny.

  2. I used to sell self-help books to the same woman, week after week, year after year. She ran with the wolves, danced the dance of anger and travelled the road less travelled. Sadly, I didn't observe any discernible improvement.

    1. But then, of course, you are from Mars, and she is from Venus