Welcome to The book club for broken souls

Forget showing off about the latest must-have novel, the new reading groups are all about caring, sharing and self-help: Welcome to The book club for broken souls

  • British literary expert Patricia Nichol, attended a Shelf Help club in West London
  • The book club dedicated to self-development was founded by Toni Jones, 42,  
  • Shelf Help offers a virtual club alongside free monthly meet-ups 
  • Toni explained her mission to make self-help more accessible through the club

On a hot, humid, tropically rainy Wednesday evening in West London, I am sitting in a room of strangers attempting to sketch my inner monster — that nagging whisperer of self-doubt that chips away at ambition and lays waste to my best intentions.

To help actualise my image of self-worth, there are coloured pencils, charcoals, glitter, even stick-on googly eyes.

For me, it’s a reminder that school art classes were humiliating — my hastily essayed inner demon looks like a scalded feral cat. And yet this rough beast is, according to kickboxer-turned-therapist Hazel Gale, author of The Mind Monster Solution, a demon I need to wrestle with, subjugate, then adopt as my wingman.

This is an author event for Shelf Help, a free book club and thriving online community dedicated to self-development.

Its founder Toni Jones, 42, held her first Shelf Help in a wine bar in Chiswick in October 2017, gathering ten or so friends and friends-of-friends to discuss Freedom Seeker by life coach Beth Kempton.

British literary expert Patricia Nichol visited a Shelf Help club in West London, as the club founded by Toni Jones, 42, (pictured) gains popularity

Less than two years on, Shelf Help has gone national — even international. Free meet-ups, on the last Monday of each month, take place in communities as far-flung as Devon, Manchester, Essex, Pembrokeshire and Yorkshire.

Existing overseas groups include ones in Los Angeles and Ontario, while Vancouver, Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney are all due to start soon. Home and abroad, more are planned.

‘I always choose books that are about self-esteem and self-worth,’ says journalist Toni, who lives in London, but hails from the North-West of England. ‘If there is one essence to it, I want people to like themselves more.’

Exploring her own sense of self set her on this path. Seven years ago, feeling burned-out, she left a demanding role in media. Self-employment, after 15 years of racing to meet other people’s deadlines, obviously held its own terrors.

One day, in her local Oxfam, Toni stumbled across a copy of Paul McKenna’s Change Your Life In Seven Days. ‘It took me about a year to read it,’ she admits, laughing. ‘But it really got me into self-help.’

She sought out more formal therapy, too. Toni’s late father was an alcoholic and she found the group meetings of Al-Anon, which supports the families of alcoholics, particularly beneficial.

‘At a stage of trying lots of different things, I was just amazed by the comfort I felt to sit with a group of people going through similar experiences.

‘At the time, I was also reading loads and loads of self-help books and boring my friends about them. I wanted to share what I was learning in that kind of supportive group. I hoped a book club — not one led by experts, but by shared interests — would achieve that.’

Toni who has launched an online community in addition to Shelf Help meet-ups, revealed that members of the club are very engaged and are forming a worldwide community network

She also launched an online community through Shelf Help’s website, Facebook and Instagram. ‘It’s a very engaged community,’ says Toni. ‘What I started was a book club, but it’s becoming a worldwide community network.’

Many regular book clubs are drawn from pre-existing communities of friends or neighbours. For some, the social element takes precedence. Tensions can arise when attendees have made little or no attempt to read the book, or are too robust in their critique of another member’s reading choice.

Shelf Help’s meet-ups, which sometimes attract scores of interested participants, operate quite differently. They work to a set format. Toni chooses all the books, sends her meet-up leaders advance questions and also pulls out five or six key quotes, passages or exercises from each book, which she believes will prompt participation.

Despite miserable, muggy weather and transport meltdowns, the event I attend has attracted a diverse, 20-strong group, ranging in age from mid-20s to middle-age.

About 50 per cent of Shelf Help attendees are regulars, such as PR man David Mahoney, 30, and Melanie Thomas, 27, who have become friends through the group but attend alone, too.

Shelf Help generally attracts around 90 per cent more women than men, the club’s Instagram page has nearly 6,000 followers (file image)

Mahoney started coming a year ago, after being inspired to change his life by Daniel Chidiac’s mission against self-sabotage, Who Says You Can’t? You Do. He believes the group’s support has encouraged him to raise his game. ‘Toni is an amazing inspiration,’ he says.

Generally, the group attracts about 90 per cent more women than men. When Toni suggested her photographer husband attend a meet-up, he came away ‘quite overwhelmed’ by just how much people were prepared to share. Politics, however, is never discussed.

‘Maybe it’s a bit of a refuge,’ ventures Toni. Or does that, I wonder, reveal a dangerously solipsistic bent to self-improvers, too narcissistically focused on themselves to want to see the messy bigger picture? Hazel Gale, author of Shelf Help’s June book of the month, refutes that notion. ‘I think self-help motivates people,’ she says. ‘One of the core messages of my book is that you will remain unfulfilled unless contributing to something beyond yourself.’

Being ‘soberish’ for more than a year has helped give the former hard-partying Toni more time to devote to her project. These days, she says she uses the start of the day to read, not rehydrate.

Toni (pictured) aspires to turn Shelf Help into a platform similar to TripAdvisor but for self-help, her mission is to make self-help more accessible 

The busiest pages on Shelf Help are the ones where people ask for and share tips. Shelf Help has nearly 6,000 Instagram followers and a Facebook community page that anyone can look at, but you have to request to join its 650 member-strong Book Club.

A virtual club, discussing the Book of the Month, takes place alongside the monthly meet-ups. ‘It’s a closed group because there needs to be some kind of level of confidentiality,’ Toni says.

‘It is a very supportive community. Someone might ask for a book recommendation on, say, loneliness, and there will be ten suggestions from all over the world.’ Business-minded friends keep asking Toni how she will monetise her successful idea. ‘I want to turn Shelf Help into a kind of platform, like a TripAdvisor for self-help,’ she says.

But while she would appreciate a return on her time invested, she is aware of how easy it would be to traduce Shelf Help’s brand value to its trusting audience by making it a selling free-for-all.

She does the classics of the self-help genre as well as newer releases. A highlight was interviewing Paul McKenna after years of listening to his hypnosis tapes. ‘It was so bizarre to be talking to him, after years of him sending me to sleep.’

The club’s August book is Susan Jeffers’s Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway.

I know several people who have trained as counsellors or therapists as a second career. Has Toni considered that? ‘Yes and no,’ she says. ‘I think my skills are in connecting people. I come from a big family and have a big group of friends. I think I can do more by bringing people together like this.’

Her mission is to make self-help more accessible. But she also believes the term is a misnomer: ‘Self-help is more powerful when we do it together.’

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