Any book can be a self-help book, depending on how it’s read. Political pamphlets, epic poems, and contemporary novels can all offer insight into how to live—or how not to. But the self-help genre is thought to have had its true start in 1859, when Samuel Smiles, a second-rate Scottish journalist and doctor, published Self-Help, With Illustrations of Character and Conduct. It became an international best seller, and the cult of personal improvement was born.
Today, self-help has mushroomed into something like a $10 billion industry: There’s a book (or three) on every one of life’s tribulations, alternately written by academics, charlatans, and others with advice to spare. Many texts still trade on a kind of Smiles-ish individualism; after all, readers are primarily seeking their own enlightenment. But the best kind of self-help book is like a trusted friend, a well-trained therapist, or an armchair philosopher—its words can connect a lone reader to the shared human experience. Whereas other texts can change our mind or even our heart, self-help provides a road map for better living.
As both an avid consumer and eager critic of this corner of the library, I take the task of selecting self-help books seriously—especially during a season whose unofficial slogan is “New year, new you.” Diet guides and manuals for manifesting a better life via positive thinking are best left on the shelf; the following books are challenging where others are pandering, open-minded where others are prescriptive. Rather than giving us a paint-by-numbers for a new personality, these titles provide fresh perspectives on the obstacles we find in our way—and in ourselves.
Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy
When Grealy was 9, she was diagnosed with cancer in her jawbone. Surgeons removed much of her mandible, which resulted in the slow sinking of her face. Her memoir is a bildungsroman for the age of the image, as Grealy recalls an adolescent self-loathing that would seem universal were it not for the inescapable fact that her face, in some ways, was indeed “too ugly to go to school,” as she puts it. The author renders nearly two decades’ worth of her innermost thoughts with surgical precision. But the real beauty is in watching Grealy outgrow the convictions she holds about the world and her place in it—that her pain is meaningless compared with the suffering of others, that stoicism is the ultimate virtue—without ever claiming to cure her chronic self-reproach. In an era when everyone’s face is a commodity, canvas, and passcode, Grealy’s difficult development from a teen obsessed with her “unlovable” appearance to a young adult capable of loving others (and accepting love in return) has never felt more relevant.
Brown reigns over the self-help genre for a reason. Her Ph.D. in social work, original research on courage and compassion, and approachable Texas twang make her about the closest thing we have to an expert on the human spirit. She also seems to practice what she preaches: When the #MeToo founder Tarana Burke told Brown about the imperfect application of her insights to communities of color, Brown agreed, and the two began co-editing a new anthology on Black life and vulnerability, You Are Your Best Thing. For those new to Brown’s “wholehearted” universe, Daring Greatly, the third of her many self-help books, remains the essential introduction to vulnerability—which she believes is the source of genuine connection with others. More than a decade since it was first released, this book is still helpful to those who want to cultivate openness not only in themselves, but also in their school, family, and workplace.
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, by Jenny Odell
This best seller has a deceptively simple thesis: You need to put your phone down. But Odell, a multidisciplinary artist whose interests have included the origin of items in the local landfill and the internet’s promise of unfettered access to information, isn’t offering just another screed about the attention economy. Instead, Odell takes readers on a meandering journey through the art classes she teaches to undergraduates; Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”; and the rose garden near her home, all in service of exposing the absurdity of current standards of productivity. Odell calls for readers to cultivate an ethic of care—one that turns away from our culture’s insatiable desire for the new and toward the maintenance of what already exists. “Solitude, observation, and simple conviviality should be recognized not only as ends in and of themselves,” she writes, “but inalienable rights belonging to anyone lucky enough to be alive.”
The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, by Don Miguel Ruiz
Fans of The Four Agreements already know its titular precepts by heart: “Be impeccable with your word,” “Don’t take anything personally,” “Don’t make assumptions,” and “Always do your best.” This book, the first in Ruiz’s Toltec Wisdom series, came out in 1997; a Mexican surgeon, Ruiz was drawn to spiritual healing after a near-death experience, and he’s been studying wisdom traditions ever since. For all its unfashionable New Age elements, readers return time and again to this 160-page treatise. In addition to offering four rules to live by, Ruiz makes a compelling case against uncritically accepting the rules of society, many of which lead to more suffering. The hope is that these agreements (now five in number—“Be skeptical, but learn to listen” joined the list in 2009) will help us create a better “dream of the world.”
In 2015, 37-year-old Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon, died of lung cancer. His posthumous memoir, When Breath Becomes Air, documents the medical training that consumed his life, his vanishing future, and the process of dying. Like The Year of Magical Thinking and Tuesdays With Morrie, the book promises the clarity of vision that readers believe only confronting death can offer. But where it really excels is in the moments when Kalanithi (and Lucy, his wife—a fellow physician, the mother to their newborn, and the author of the book’s lengthy postscript) acknowledges just how unrealistic this expectation of final clarity really is. Although readers might crave a tightly constructed proverb, it’s Kalanithi’s desperate struggle to give his life meaning that makes the book a must-read. To the end, he was strong and afraid, insightful and confused, continually changing—in other words, exactly as human as the rest of us.
Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, by adrienne maree brown
For brown, activism is rooted in science fiction: Both are acts of world building. This boundless creativity is at the center of all of her work, which recontextualizes urgent social ills by asking, How can we move forward with feeling? At first blush, Pleasure Activism sounds like everything a political text is not: deeply personal, unabashedly sensual, emphatically erotic. But drawing on conversations with friends, Black feminist texts, and her own experiences, brown convinces readers that making space for rapture is a path toward liberation. By acknowledging our basic human needs, she writes, we “reclaim” ourselves from the “impacts, delusions, and limitations of oppression and/or supremacy.” This work is neither individualistic nor hedonistic; although some delights can be felt only firsthand, brown’s goal is to use them to transform readers, and through them, communities.
Anxious Eaters: Why We Fall for Fad Diets, by Janet Chrzan and Kima Cargill
This is not a diet book—or an anti-diet book. In Anxious Eaters, the nutritional anthropologist Janet Chrzan and the psychologist Kima Cargill investigate why fad diets remain so popular even though they almost always fail to produce sustained weight loss. In academic but accessible prose, they explain that although regimens such as clean eating and paleo ban certain foods and prioritize others, food itself is pretty insignificant to our culture’s embrace of dieting. Instead, Chrzan and Cargill argue, fad diets are the logical consequence of our society psychology; each diet is a complex system of meaning intended to help us manage not our body, but our mind. Their book avoids easy action items, but that’s the point: Rather than guiding readers to weight loss or body acceptance, Chrzan and Cargill hope to turn the popular notion of “good” and “bad” foods inside out.
The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, by Julia Cameron
The Artist’s Way has been putting the work in workbook since 1992. This 12-week-long program developed by Cameron is intended to help artists reconnect with their innate creativity. There’s one big rule: When you wake, before you do anything else, write three longhand pages. Cameron promises participants that these “morning pages” will clear their mind, clarify their goals, and perhaps even get them started on their next project. She would know; she’s the author of dozens of books, poetry collections, and plays, and it’s clear that she never lets her well run dry. But Cameron insists that every human being is an artist in one form or another, so anyone can benefit from sitting down with a pen and paper. “Whatever you think you can do, or believe you can do, begin it,” she writes, quoting Goethe. “Action has magic, grace and power in it.”
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