The Books Briefing: On Self-Progress

New year, new reads: Your weekly guide to the best in books

While resolutions are notorious for being abandoned not far into the new calendar year, really any time of year is a good time to refine the way you inhabit the world.

When going through her midlife crisis at age 50, the writer Alison Gopnik said the philosopher David Hume’s A Treatise of Human Nature—which argues that the beauty of life is the experience of living itself, without concern for the metaphysical—helped her get through the crisis. In his memoir Hiking With Nietzsche, John Kaag explores the prescriptive writings from the famous philosopher, interspersing that commentary with first-person accounts to show how Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas influenced Kaag’s day-to-day life.

Being more understanding of others is another common resolution. In her essay collection The Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison inspects her own quest to become more empathetic, and questions if empathy is really something that can be taught. The harrowing experience of being imprisoned in a concentration camp during World War II inspired the Jewish psychiatrist Viktor Frankl to write Man’s Search for Meaning, in which he said that pursuing simple happiness over searching for a greater meaning in life was detrimental to satisfaction.

Memoirs by Kiese Laymon and Casey Gerald each tackle how pursuing the American idea of self-progress as black men was damaging not only to themselves, but also the disadvantaged communities where they came from, because their image of success set false standards for achievement.

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas.

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What We’re Reading

The personal cost of black success
“Both books take on the important work of exposing the damage done to America, especially its black population, by the failure to confront the myths, half-truths, and lies at the foundation of the success stories that the nation worships.”

📚Heavy, by Kiese Laymon
📚There Will Be No Miracles Here, by Casey Gerald

How an 18th-century philosopher helped solve my midlife crisis
“Here’s Hume’s really great idea: Ultimately, the metaphysical foundations don’t matter. Experience is enough all by itself. What do you lose when you give up God or ‘reality’ or even ‘I’?”

📚A Treatise of Human Nature, by David Hume

(New York Public Library)

There’s more to life than being happy
“By putting aside our selfish interests to serve someone or something larger than ourselves—by devoting our lives to ‘giving’ rather than ‘taking’—we are not only expressing our fundamental humanity, but are also acknowledging that that there is more to the good life than the pursuit of simple happiness.”

📚Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl

How to live better, according to Nietzsche
“Blending biography, intellectual history, and personal essay, Kaag follows three related journeys: Nietzsche’s evolution from adolescent upstart to middle-aged iconoclast, Kaag’s youthful attempt to retrace Nietzsche’s footsteps through the Swiss Alps, and Kaag’s adult effort to retrace his own retracing, this time with Hay and their 3-year-old daughter in tow.”

📚Hiking With Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are, by John Kaag

What’s wrong with sentimentality?
“The title essay ... weaves together painful personal experience and incrementally detached observations about what empathy is and whether it can be taught.”

📚 The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison

The Reference Desk

(New York Public Library)

Write to the Books Briefing team at or reply directly to this email with any of your reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Myles Poydras. The book he’s reading right now is Thick: And Other Essays, by Tressie McMillan Cottom.

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