Toolkit Books

‘New year, new us’: how the toolkit book took over self-help

With the world in turmoil, people are turning to books that offer practical, meaningful advice on how to bring about social change.

Kieran Yates

We are living through the rumble of seismic change; a chaos of news cycles and tragedy. Building imaginative responses to this is cultural work, and recently we have seen journalists and artist engaging in the task through bursts of pop-up online events, salons and book clubs that make the case for peer learning and teaching. And the publishing industry, too, is contributing.

While publishing moves slower than the news wire, the past 12 months have seen a market for “toolkit” books, so named because they give us the tools and instruction of how we might change our respective worlds. Often having ‘How To’ in the title, they offer a 21st-century take on the introspective self-help books that enjoyed global popularity in the 80s and 90s, zooming out from the personal to the political.

These books reverse the tiny actions of us all, encouraging us to set the books down, look up, and start a project for change.

Many recent books dismiss the idea that anyone is too small to make a difference – a point made in the title of Greta Thunberg’s collection of essays, published in 2019. These books encourage us to set it down, look up, and start a project for change.  

Over the past year we’ve seen many authors try to funnel the adrenaline of the global discord into actionable solutions for readers. Ibram X. Kendi’s How To be an Antiracist makes its motivations clear in the title, while Layla Saad’s bestseller Me and White Supremacy is billed as a resource that offers “important teachings and tools for transforming consciousness, cultivating personal anti-racism practice”.

This is Not A Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, meanwhile, is an emergency guide, imploring you to grip the world tight as it literally burns, and this year Merky Books, Stormzy’s publishing imprint, announced a series of forthcoming How To guides, from How to Write It from Anthony Anaxagorou, How to Build Your Brand from Niran Vinod and Damola Timeyin, or simply How to Change It from activist Joshua Virasami.

There is urgency in these pages with a simple plea: we have to act now, and here’s how to start.

Information with this tone that might historically have been found in trade union pamphlets, zines, or leaflets handed out on the street, is finding itself into mainstream shop windows. There is urgency in these pages with a simple plea: we have to act now, and here’s how to start.

Journalist Emma Warren is the author of Document Your Culture, a “workbook” to help people tell their cultural stories. “I think there’s always a gap between the education people want and need, and what they get from the establishment” she says. “It’s because there’s generally a generation gap between the two. The structures which suggest that they at least worked for some of us don’t appear to work for any of us anymore so more people are having to do what some people have always had to do” she says. “Work it out for themselves, find the resources they need, and share it amongst their friends.”

Her self-published book is a welcome addition to the space: Document Your Culture is a thoughtful, beautiful manual that guides us through the ethical, social and practical considerations of documenting stories. She makes the argument that as cities crumble through regeneration and underfunding, we must archive the spaces and community in homage to what they’ve given us. She magnifies the magic of DIY and dismantles any notions of elitism that might stop us from being a photographer, videographer, writer or archivist. Her advice is practical and comes in the form of short, numbered checklists and questions that range from the simple: “Start gathering your material”, “find your existing archive, even if it’s in someone’s shoebox or DMs” to the poetic, “ask yourself and your interviewees: where are the Black and Brown people, the women, the people who know the fear of poverty the queer folk? Who are you centering?” One chapter titles warns: ‘We don’t have time to mess around’.

Whether advising the reader on how they might consider seeing the world, or by moving them to act, it’s true that activist literature has always been a toolkit of sorts, often published through periods of social and political turmoil. Each iteration of these books reflects the time they are in. Now, though, large publishing houses appear to be acknowledging this in a significant way while the internet has enabled those from smaller presses and self-publishing to gain a larger platform. If this wave of publishing is anything to go by, where we find ourselves is tumultuous, at best. 

This Land: The Story of a Movement by Owen Jones, out this month, is an analysis of the political left in Britain through the trials and tribulations of “Corbynism”. One of the chapters in the book is a guide: “How to Run a Labour Campaign”. The chapter reveals in fascinating detail how Corbyn’s leadership campaign came to be born and what worked – a catchy slogan inspired in part by Percy Bysshe Shelley, describing policy in 10 seconds on a doorstep, Momentum’s phone canvassing app. Though Corbyn lost the 2019 election, it is an optimistic addition as Jones implores us to learn from the strategies that did, and didn’t, work.

 An obvious reason for the popularity of these books may be the failure of formal education and workplaces to support how we navigate our respective worlds. This is certainly true online where many young people are picking up the slack via graphics on Instagram, or reading lists on Twitter as an introduction to subjects people are coming to for the first time. Breaking down the barriers to accessing this kind of information by book sharing, uploading pdfs online, is also seemingly, also part of the work.

'We are having to think more about how we change things outside of us. I can feel that people are very hungry for pointers'

These books, happily, vary in scope and intention so much that it would be disingenuous to lump them together as a mere trend. But what they do share is an energy towards change, that answer questions prevalent in our moment: what can I do? 

Caroline Sanderson is the Associate at The Bookseller and mentions how some of these books reflect the necessity of the moment. “In the last few years I’ve seen a shift away from quite a narrow field of vision about ‘new year new you’ means” she says. “I think there has been a rise of what I’ve called ‘new year, new us’ thinking, which is necessary because of the state of the world. We are having to think more about how we change things outside of us. I can feel that people are very hungry for pointers”.

Darren Chetty, the co-author of How To Disagree: Negotiate Difference in a Divided World explores how social media has been a component of the new approaches and urgency to seek new information. His book provides “20 thought provoking lessons” on debate, tone policing and debunking myths about the so-called neutrality of how we talk to one another about politics.

On the ‘How To’ title, he agrees that “this is a kind of progression from the Eighties and Nineties self-help personal development books. Now, there’s little bit of a shift from working on the self to recognising that there might be more of a social element to think about as well. I think during the rise of the Black Lives Matters protests we saw people on social media sharing and compiling book lists more than ever. It gave a real sense that some of the work that needed to be done… involved some kind of study”.

'That these books must be a starting point, from trusted, diverse authors then, is crucial to their impact and lasting legacy'

It’s a good point that for many marginalised groups, this study has long been carried out through lived experience, so platforming the appropriate writers too, and asking just who these books are for, is crucial. 

But Sharmaine Lovegrove, publisher and founder of Dialogue Books, emphasises that we should exercise caution to avoid this moment turning cynical. “These books are important but they risk becoming reductive, because one anti-racist might tell you to reach out to your Black friends, say, or talk about flying being the worst possible thing you can do for the environment and another will tell you the opposite – which one do you believe?” So there’s an issue with the populism of these guides, in that we need to ensure experts are writing them.” That these books must be a starting point, from trusted, diverse authors then, is crucial to their impact and lasting legacy.

As we continue to see books written through a period of austerity, rampant fear, decimated arts industries and school curriculums under attack, our starting point might be the simplest. On the final back page of Warren’s manual she makes one final instruction that might serve us well as the ground shakes beneath us. Graphically printed text, repeated over and over make a single demand: “Pass this one to someone who needs it.”

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Image: Alicia Fernandes / Penguin

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