What Our Biggest Best-Sellers Tell Us About a Nation’s Soul

The “canon” in the title of Jess McHugh’s “Americanon” (Dutton) consists of thirteen American books, from “The Old Farmer’s Almanac,” first published in 1792, to Stephen R. Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” which came out in 1989. It includes Webster’s Dictionary, Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” “Betty Crocker’s Picture Cook Book,” and “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask),” by David Reuben.

The works are all mega-sellers. McHugh tells us about the McGuffey Readers, textbooks first used in nineteenth-century homes and schools; they sold more than a hundred and thirty million copies—and, since most copies had multiple readers, the total circulation was even larger. Carnegie’s book came out in 1936, has sold more than thirty million copies, and is still in print. Louise Hay’s “You Can Heal Your Life” (1984) has sold more than fifty million copies, and Covey’s “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” has sold more than forty million. Betty Crocker’s cookbook has sold more than seventy-five million copies. At least a hundred million inquiring minds have read “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.*”

These sales figures are way beyond the range of even the most acclaimed fiction. Some of the books, such as “The Old Farmer’s Almanac” and Emily Post’s “Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home,” which was first published in 1922, are continually updated and reissued, and still maintain market share. McHugh says that “Etiquette” used to be the second-most stolen book from the library after the Bible (which presumably is taken by people unfamiliar with the Ten Commandments).

Fifty-seven million copies of Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary have been sold (I have a copy of the fifth edition, owned by my mother, which was published in 1936), and there are some two billion word searches on Merriam-Webster’s apps every year. The books in McHugh’s canon are not books so much as appliances. They are not read; they are used. And probably many of them have been bought by people who do not otherwise buy many books.

The term “canon” is also, well, loaded. Canons define a tradition, a culture, a civilization by excluding things that don’t belong to it. The claim of “Americanon” is that the enormous and enduring sales numbers of the books McHugh discusses mean that they can be understood to be promoting a national ideology, or what she calls a national myth. She does not think that this is a good thing.

In fact, McHugh disapproves of every one of the books she writes about. “Americanon” is, in effect, a critique of American society in the form of thirteen book reviews. It belongs to a critical strategy of attacking current inequities in American life by attacking prior representations of those inequities. This is an entry in the new culture wars.

It may be that the books in McHugh’s canon were received as summing up a sort of national consensus about how life should be lived in the United States, but, as she tells us, their authors’ “vision of the ideal American all too often collided with who they themselves were.” Catharine Beecher, the author of “A Treatise on Domestic Economy”—a work, first published in 1841, purveying the notion that a woman’s place is in the home—never married, had a career as a public figure, and seems to have been disliked by many who knew her, including members of her own family. (Harriet Beecher Stowe was her sister.) Carnegie grew up in deep poverty and suffered from a debilitating inferiority complex until he discovered that he had an amazing gift for public speaking (which most people do not).

Emily Post wrote her “Etiquette” book because she needed to make a living after divorcing her husband when it was publicly revealed that he had been having an affair with a showgirl. (How rude!) And Betty Crocker did not exist. She was a fabrication of what became General Mills, which eventually employed forty-five people to keep the brand going and to answer the letters—as many as five thousand a day—it received from women writing to ask Betty Crocker for advice.

The books McHugh writes about are all how-to or self-help books. These are overlapping literary domains, actually, since people tend to believe, not unreasonably, that knowing how to do things for yourself also makes you feel good about yourself. Our desire to learn (and share) “best practices” for everything from collecting maple syrup and pronouncing unfamiliar words to baking brownies, having sex, and eating asparagus in company is deeply ingrained. Even if there may not be a single best way to do these things, we know that there are many worse ways, and we feel that avoiding the worse ways has to be one ingredient of a happier life.

Given her thesis, it’s a little strange that one of McHugh’s most frequent epithets, in criticizing these books, is “arbitrary.” She accuses Emily Post and David Reuben and even Noah Webster of arbitrarily imposing their own norms on their users. But, as she herself points out repeatedly, every book in her canon was one of many just like it being published around the same time. There were at least a hundred eighteenth-century almanacs competing with “The Old Farmer’s Almanac,” and many dictionaries of the American language competing with Webster’s. Numerous domestic manuals besides Beecher’s came out in the nineteenth century, and there was a deluge of self-help books in the nineteen-eighties. It seems fair to assume that the books that made it onto the best-seller lists and into the canon are the ones that captured the prevailing wisdom the best.

For isn’t the prevailing wisdom what these books are selling? We don’t want to know how Emily Post eats asparagus when dining out. We want to know how people who are regarded as having impeccable manners eat it, and we trust Emily Post to know the answer. We normally want to fit in, not stand out.

Part of what makes these books seem arbitrary to McHugh may be the single-author format. The online world has produced a torrent of how-to and self-help advice, but that advice has a thousand authors, not just one. The books in McHugh’s canon are really not that different. When the medium is the printed book, the thousand authors get squeezed into a single name on the title page.

The effect is to make it appear as though the author were a fount of original wisdom, as though Dale Carnegie invented the idea of salesmanship, when all he was doing was summing it up, or as though Betty Crocker were a real person who had useful life advice, when “she” was mainly selling General Mills products. Emily Post was teaching etiquette in the same way that a mathematics teacher teaches math: this is how the best people do it, or aspire to do it. We can say that these authors understood what was better or what worked better than other people did. But they were not creating a new field.

McHugh is also annoyed that all her books seem to ratify existing social arrangements. (This appears to contradict her complaint about arbitrariness.) And they do. But isn’t that their raison d’être? “We cannot entirely blame Post for not revolutionizing etiquette in a way that shattered old ways of doing things,” McHugh says. Certainly, etiquette and “shattering old ways of doing things” are not exactly congruent concepts. People buy an etiquette manual in order to learn how things are done, not why they shouldn’t be done, or how they might be done. Even iconoclasts need to know that much.

McHugh says that her books “continually take the pressure off the system and put it back on the person.” That is true, too, but that is the nature of do-it-yourself and self-help books. The problem is not other people, they are saying; the problem is you—not getting up at an early enough hour, not setting aside enough “me time” in your day, relying on someone else to make your maple syrup. Benjamin Franklin, whose autobiography is in the canon, pulled himself up out of nowhere, and you can, too, even if you do not happen to be a genius of business, science, and diplomacy. Perceived barriers to success are illusory. This is not Karl Marx.

Is there something distinctively American about this belief? McHugh thinks that there is. “Self-help,” she says, “is in some ways the most American genre of literature.” It’s true that both the American pioneer narrative and the American immigrant narrative have themes of self-reliance and individual entrepreneurship woven into them. Even though all Americans enjoy benefits paid for by the state, from federal highways and product-safety rules to veterans’ pensions and food stamps, few Americans like to admit it.

“Not again!”
Cartoon by Erik Bergstrom

Still, as Beth Blum has pointed out in “The Self-Help Compulsion” (2020), reading books for life advice is an ancient practice. Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics” can be read as a guide to virtuous living. (Like many of McHugh’s writers, Aristotle was only summing up the characteristics of people generally counted as virtuous in his time and place—that is, the eastern Mediterranean in the fourth century B.C. You want to be thought virtuous? Be like them.) Blum calls Boethius’ “The Consolation of Philosophy,” which was written in the sixth century, “bibliotherapy avant la lettre,” an idea that Alain de Botton, the leading contemporary bibliotherapist, acknowledges in the title of his 2000 book, “The Consolations of Philosophy.” People don’t generally describe the Bible as a how-to book, but it partly is—as is the Quran.


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