You should never ask a woman her age, how many lovers she's had or how many self-help books she has read. That's the answer I tend to give when the latter question is broached, although I'll concede that I've read quite a few.
Some are current, some are classics. But it's a huge market, and not everything you see on the shelves is worth reading. So how do you know which ones to try? As a general rule, I stay away from books that were panic-written in time for the January self-improvement market. I also avoid books that piggyback current trends, whether it's mindfulness, morning rituals or the latest Scandinavian lifestyle import.
And I have no truck with books that promise to "change your life!". If you really think you need to conclusively overhaul every aspect of your being, well then you're going to need more than a book.
Self-development books work best when there's a specific challenge to overcome. If you want to deal with grief, break a habit or stop procrastinating, you'll find no shortage of excellent books by experts in the field. But if you walk into a bookshop hoping to change your life, you'd be better off reading your horoscope.
As the saying goes, if you don't know where you're going any road will get you there - although you'll probably end up going down the road of the 'guru' making the loftiest claims and angling for the biggest up-sell with retreats, audio tapes, merchandise and whatnot.
And so begins the self-help loop. Self-help junkies tend to buy one book after another, not because they are integrating the advice, but because they have become addicted to the short-lived motivational boost that the books give them. This is partly why so many people scoff at the mere mention of self-help.
I can understand why they've arrived at this conclusion, but I think they've allowed their assessment of the sector to be coloured by titles that don't necessarily represent it. I've never read a book that changed my life, but I can safely say that the following eight books impacted my life hugely.
1. The Road Less Travelled (by M Scott Peck, 1978)
Psychiatrist M Scott Peck lays his cards out early in The Road Less Travelled with the now-famous opening line: "Life is difficult." Reading it for the first time as a teenager, I can remember feeling like I was finally getting the full story.
The Road Less Travelled is a repository of life lessons, but the author never hectors or proselytises. True wisdom has a quiet assurance and his approach is gentle - even if his insights are sometimes unsparing.
Every sentence of this book is a revelation but the pages that get dog-eared have to do with relationships, and the all-too-common tendency for people to confuse dependency and love.
"When you require another individual for your survival, you are a parasite on that individual," wrote Peck. "There is no choice, no freedom involved in your relationship. It is a matter of necessity rather than love." Like I said, he pulls no punches - but it's an enriching, soul-stretching read nonetheless.
2. The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem (by Nathaniel Branden, 1994)
Psychotherapist Nathaniel Branden was another no-nonsense type. He was known as the father of the self-esteem movement but don't go pointing the finger at him for birthing the "because I'm worth it" generation. Branden advocated self-awareness rather than self-approval and he was always concerned about the movement becoming oversimplified and trivialised.
This book can be heavy-hitting, especially for those waiting patiently for their knight in shining armour to arrive. "No one is coming to save you," Branden bluntly writes. A sobering read, but an essential one too.
3. A Return to Love (by Marianne Williamson, 1992)
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure."
You probably know Marianne Williamson from this now ubiquitous quote but perhaps you haven't taken the time to delve deeper into her work. A Return to Love charts Williamson's spiritual journey as she discovers A Course in Miracles - a New Age bible or a spiritual scam, depending on who you talk to.
Either way, Williamson's reflections on the book are profound, especially her insights on 'difficult' people.
"People who have the most to teach us are often the ones who reflect back to us the limits to our own capacity to love," she writes. "Those who consciously or unconsciously challenge our fearful positions. They show us our walls."
You'll no longer ask, 'Why me?' after reading this book. Instead you'll ask, 'Why now?'.
4. The 4-Hour Workweek (by Timothy Ferriss, 2007)
I tend to avoid books that advocate leaving the rat race behind - largely because the authors often fail to mention how their book deals helped them fund their awfully big adventures. Tim Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, is a perfect example of the 'meta' self-development author, which is why I initially stayed away from this book.
I changed my tune when I heard about his "mini-retirement" idea. Indeed, I haven't looked at the career trajectory the same way since.
Ferriss doesn't believe in the "macro-retirement". He thinks we should take a series of mini-retirements, at various stages of our lives instead. There's a lot more to The 4-Hour Workweek but this idea stands apart for its remarkable prescience.
We're living longer and working harder. Meanwhile, the world of work is changing rapidly. Mini-retirements capitalise on the finite resource of energy and recognise that we all need regular system reboots in an always-on world. This isn't one of my favourite books, but this is by far one of my favourite ideas.
5. The Game of Life (by Florence Scovel-Shinn, 1925)
This book isn't for everyone. I know this because half of the people I buy it for go on to buy it for their own friends. The other half see the sing-song affirmations, the Bible verses and the mention of 'Jesus' in the first chapter and look at me as though I've taken leave of my senses.
The Game of Life was written almost 100 years ago, so you can forgive it for being a little quaint. It's also a touch simplistic, but that's part of its charm.
If I need to change my attitude, lift my spirits or find an affirmation, this is the book I turn to.
6. Anam Cara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom (by John O'Donohue, 1997)
Anam Cara means 'soul friend', and this book has become my touchstone for meaningful relationships, romantic or otherwise. Real intimacy, according to O'Donohue, is a "sacred experience". "It never exposes its secret trust and belonging to the voyeuristic eye of a neon culture. Real intimacy is of the soul, and the soul is reserved."
Poets and philosophers are always trying to touch the interstices between the celestial and the terrestrial. The late John O'Donohue lived there.
7. The Power of Habit (by Charles Duhigg, 2012)
I used to think breaking a habit required super-human willpower and an unbearably long period of nail-biting, nerve-jangling denial. The Power of Habit taught me that the brain is wired into a habit loop, and the best way to change a habit is by substituting one routine for another. Duhigg also outlines the five main triggers for a habit: location, time, emotional state, other people and immediately preceding action.
8. When Things Fall Apart (by Pema Chodron, 1996)
Buddhist wisdom reminds us that nothing is permanent and everything is in flux. This philosophy is the cornerstone of When Things Fall Apart, but unlike many other Buddhist authors, Chodron has the real-life experience to back it up.
In 1972, the author's husband announced that he was having an affair and left her and her young children. In 1981, Chodron became a fully-ordained Buddhist nun in the Tibetan tradition.
"We think the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved," she writes. "They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy."
This is the book to read if you want to learn how to go with the flow and take things as they come.