Self-help is typically shelved in bookstores somewhere near the diet books and manuals of interior design. But a more appropriate location might be adjacent to "Sword and Sorcery" or "Sci-fi." Some people like to imagine alternate worlds, and some are content daydreaming about an alternate life. Self-help is fantasy fiction for the earthbound.

Like a good time-travel story, self-help books challenge the necessity of present circumstance. But while the alternate reality in sci-fi is typically the future, planet, or world, the only counterfactual in self-help is one's self. Readers of How to Win Friends and Influence People leave their cubicles behind to become crusaders of the corporate ladder; they trade in their awkward temperaments for social charisma and aplomb. Instead of quantum leaps across distant epochs and lands, white-collar workers temporarily become Wall Street tycoons, introverts inhabit the mind of a Casanova.

The fields of self-help and science fiction have long overlapped. One of the most influential self-help gurus of our time, L. Ron Hubbard, began as a third-rate science fiction writer-a fact Hubbard later downplayed out of fear it would detract from his religious authority. But long before Scientology and The Secret came along, the fields of self-help, occultism, and science were intertwined. The self-help industry has roots in the 19th-century movement called "New Thought," a pseudoscience that advocated "mind power," or the ability to control circumstance through positive visualization. Through proper mental alignment, argued New Thought pioneer Ralph Waldo Trine in 1897, "you will exchange dis-ease for ease, inharmony for harmony, suffering and pain for abounding health and strength." This idea that reality can be modified by the mind is the very definition of magical thinking. ...[Continue reading on Aeon Ideas]