The School of Life's self-help series + tour
Last night I went to the launch of the School of Life's new self-help series - six short books or long essays on everything from How To Stay Sane (by Philippa Perry) to How To Worry Less About Money (by John Armstrong) to How To Think More About Sex (by Alain de Botton). I was given a ticket by Philippa Perry - thanks Philippa! - and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was quite an event, with 900 people in the beautiful Union Chapel in Islington. If philosophy really is going to be a 'religion for atheists' as de Botton put it, you couldn't ask for a better church.
The School of Life, which de Botton and others including Roman Krznaric set up in 2008, has always been in some sense an attempt to save self-help from itself. It has always positioned itself at the intelligent, literate and funny end of the self-help market, and has insisted to the snooty literati that the genre includes among its ranks such greats as Epicurus, Emerson and Montaigne - if it's good enough for them, it should be good enough for the rest of us. And it's been an important hub in the burgeoning of 'intelligent self-help' (ISH), and a stop-over on book tours for ISH writers like Jonah Lehrer, David Eagleman and Oliver Burkeman - Oliver, by the way, was compere at an event the School of Life ran this time last year, called 'The Self-Help Summit' - you can watch a video of part of it below:
Last year, The School signed its first book deal - a six-book contract with Pan Macmillan. They signed it I think the same month I signed a deal with Rider Books for Philosophy for Life - which is also about how we can use philosophy as a form of therapy or self-help. I think the Pan Macmillan deal was considerably bigger than mine, which was more of, er, a first book sort of deal. Pan Macmillan then sold foreign rights to something like 15 countries. I heard on the industry grapevine that South Korea alone paid a $200,000 advance for the books. That is amazing - for all British authors, really, because it means UK arts (including philosophy) are achieving a global reach. My own book's success in selling foreign rights (11 countries as of this morning - just sold it to Romania! ) was mainly because of Rider's incredible foreign rights team, but was also no doubt helped by how successfully the School has spread the idea of practical philosophy. People all over the world have heard of de Botton and the School, and it's now in the process of opening up franchises in places like Brazil, South Korea and Turkey - emerging markets that have been growing incredibly fast for a decade and now want to slow down and smell the philosophical roses. Once the UK exported wool and bridges, now we export ideas.
The books were launched last week. They're selling very well, and are beautifully designed. They got a nice write-up in the Irish Times. I think their books and mine should have been reviewed more widely. But perhaps books editors have a continued snobbery about self-help. Why? What is so awful about the idea that books can help people live better lives? Why did the LRB feel compelled to take such a snobby view of the School? Shouldn't a left-wing arts paper believe in the power of ideas to improve ordinary people's lives? It's like the literary left is more elitist than the right, which is completely the wrong way round. The likes of Raymond Williams or Mortimer Adler would have got what the School was trying to do.
Well, anyway, judging by last night, the School doesn't need any help in the publicity department. Along with the book series, the School is taking its show on the road with TSOL Live, which is touring the UK and Ireland, and who knows, maybe a world tour awaits. The show started with some amusing oom-pah music, then Ben Hammersley (he of the steam-punk moustache) introduced the event and welcomed on the first speaker - Roman Krznaric, one of the founders of the School, and the author of How To Find More Fulfilling Work. Roman spoke at the London Philosophy Club earlier this year, and was one of our best guest-speakers. He's very good at engaging the audience and getting them to discuss something among themselves. Also he always has a clear structure to his talks - he will discuss seven kinds of love, for example, or five ways to find fulfilling work. The advantage of that is the audience know where they're going and how soon the end is. They never feel they're drifting.
After Roman's 10 minutes, it was the turn of John Armstrong, a British philosopher who lives in Australia and teaches at Melbourne Business School. He spoke on How To Worry Less About Money, and began with an engaging personal anecdote about how crap his car is and how he worries if he can afford a new one. Hopefully he can now. He spoke interestingly about envy and how it reveals our secret ideas about the perfect life, which I liked. Afterwards Ben Hammersley took a question from the audience - something like 'is money all bad?' which poor John had to answer in 30 seconds or so. Then it was Tom Chatfield, author of Fun Inc, uber-gamer, and also author of How To Thrive In The Digital Age. Tom's also been a guest-speaker at the London Philosophy Club. He spoke well about being a gourmet about technology - not uncritically embracing and gorging on everything, but rather picking what technology you use and how much you use it.
Then we had a booze break, followed by Philippa Perry looking amazing in a yellow and orange ensemble. Philippa had been handed the toughest subject - How To Stay Sane - which she handled with aplomb. She said she was often asked if we should somehow overcome all stress, which she thought was a ridiculous suggestion. Stress has its place, chaos has its place, emotional messiness has its place "though if you're constantly being arrested, or every one of your relationships doesn't work" then perhaps there's a bit too much chaos. Next up was Alain de Botton, the star attraction, who spoke very amusingly about the easiest subject - How To Think More About Sex. He looked like a man who's already had one bestseller this year, and who was happy to be talking about something slightly less serious than religion. Instead, he happily chatted about sex swings, oral sex, threesomes, love-bites, leather face-masks and other kinky stuff. The audience were all a-titter - a philosopher talking about sex swings! Fancy! Finally, John-Paul Flintoff told us How To Change The World, with an endearing tale of encouraging his neighbours to grow more tomatoes.
The format worked well, and reminded me of the old Chautauqua movement in 19th and early 20th century America, in which bands of traveling lecturers would tour from town to rural town, set up a tent, and then entertain the locals with lectures about everything from electricity to temperance to abolitionism.The format encourages showmanship and oratorical feats, and I think that's probably the way philosophy will go too - more comedy (eg Natalie Haynes, the stand-up who wrote a book recently on ancient philosophy), more music (I wouldn't be surprised to see a musical philosopher appear, along the lines of Tim Minchin or Bill Bailey), more magic (the Skepticism movement, for example, has succeeded partly because it's full of magicians who know how to put on a good show), perhaps even more dance, puppetry, spinning plates, human cannonballs...My God, I'm speaking at the School of Life this evening, what am I going to do to compete? Set fire to my chest-hair?
Anyway, thanks again to Philippa for the free ticket, and very good luck to the tour on its way round UK and Ireland - you can find out details about the tour and book tickets here. I am going to work my way through the books, starting with Sanity and ending with Sex. Or should it be the other way round?