By the time this advertisement appeared in the Book Review on Aug. 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.” By 1917, Charles E. Butler of Brentano’s 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,” cheap, pocket-size stapled editions of classics and new books that, as one of his ads in the Book Review boasted in 1924, were “doing more to educate the country than any 10 universities put together.”
But though Haldiman-Julius promised to bring the worlds of philosophy, poetry, literature and science to the general public, he didn’t guarantee that his Little Blue Books would help readers impress their dates. That would fall to the Pocket Classical Library, which sold its set of 12 heavily abridged volumes — “Not too much. Just enough of each to give the reader a knowledge and understanding of the great men of literature” — next to a photo of an earnest young businessman sitting alongside an attractive bobbed-hair flapper. “He was glad he could tell her that he had read the noteworthy classics. Glad he could discuss with her 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. Not long after that, The Times ran a story about the rector of Christ Church in Cambridge, Mass. “Attacking the advice of the current ‘self-improvement’ literature as being ‘stupid and inconsequential,’” the paper reported, “the Rev. Dr. C. Leslie Glenn said yesterday the reason these books had attained such a high circulation was that the majority of Christians had stopped reading the Bible.”
Tina Jordan is the deputy editor of the Book Review and co-author of “The New York Times Book Review: 125 Years of Literary History.”
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