By the time this advertisement appeared in the Book Review on August 14, 1927, the idea of reading books for self-improvement was not new. As early as 1859, the Scottish reformer Samuel Smiles advocated in “Self-Help” that “the best education of a man is that which he gives himself”. In 1917, Charles E. Butler of Brentano Bookstores told The Times that “self improvement is the keynote of the day.” And in 1919, E. Haldiman-Julius began publishing his series of “Little Blue Books”, inexpensive, paperback stapled editions of classics and new books which, as one of his announcements in the Book Review boasted in 1924, “did more to educate the country than 10 universities put together.”
But although Haldiman-Julius promised to bring the worlds of philosophy, poetry, literature and science to the general public, he did not guarantee that his Little Blue Books would help readers impress their dates. . This would go to the Pocket Classical Library, which sold its set of 12 heavily abbreviated volumes – “Not too many. Just enough of each to give the reader a knowledge and understanding of the great men of literature ”- alongside a photo of a serious young businessman sitting next to a cute boy with cropped hair. “He was glad to be able to tell her that he had read the remarkable classics. Glad he got to chat with her about the masterpieces of Hawthorne, Carlyle, Kipling, Poe.
Self-help books only grew in popularity, spurred, at least in part, by the success of Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” in 1936. Soon after, The Times published an article on the rector of Christ Church. in Cambridge, Mass. “Attacking the view of the current self-improvement literature as ‘stupid and inconsequential’,” the journal reported, “Reverend Dr. C. Leslie Glenn said yesterday the reason these books had reached such a big spread was that the majority of Christians had stopped reading the Bible.
Tina Jordan is associate editor of Book Review and co-author of “The New York Times Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History”.
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