Inspiring Books That Are NOT Chicken Soup For The Soul

I have a confession to make: I have a minor addiction to what might be described as new school self-help books. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying? Yep, my apartment has been Kondo'd many times over. The Happiness Project? Before it was a podcast, it was a book that I turned to whenever I felt like my life was veering off course and needed a little redirection.
And then there's Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of advice columns by Wild author Cheryl Strayed that has basically been my bible for how to be a better person — and also give myself a break for not being perfect. (We're all just human, right?)
So what do all these books have in common, apart from the fact that they're my go-to gifts for friends during the holidays? Though they vary in subject, these titles are all inspirational reads that might just help get you over the hump when you need a little push. Getting your read on never felt so good.
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By Mary Oliver

Mary Oliver's known for her exquisite poetry about nature and physical landscapes. Here, she turns her generous eye to matters of the human heart. She defines joy, love, and happiness with such accuracy that you, too, will feel joy, love, and happiness.
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The Joy Luck Club

By Amy Tan

Each week, four Chinese immigrant mothers gather together to play mahjong and talk about their shared histories. And each week, their four Chinese-American daughters feel the gulf between their experiences in America and their mothers'. Over the course of this iconic novel, the daughters unravel the secrets of their mother's pasts, and achieve breakthroughs in understanding.
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The Book Thief

By Markus Zusak

This astounding novel tells the story of a young girl in Nazi-occupied Germany, whose adopted parents take in a Jewish refugee. Sounds like a typical historical fiction novel, but it's not — Zusak's novel is narrated by the cheeky, all-knowing, ominous character of Death itself. This book will change you.
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The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

Bill Gates tweeted that this is "[The Better Angels of Our Nature] is most inspiring book I've ever read." In the book, Pinker argues that the world is, largely, getting better. According to Pinker, we're currently in the most peaceful epoch of our time. If it's good enough for Gates, it's good enough for us.
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Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype

By Clarissa Pinkola Estés

In this influential work, Pinkola Estés examines classic myths, fairy tales, and folk tales using Jungian philosophy. While it sounds dry, trust me — this is anything but. If you're lost and need to be found; if you're out of touch with your inner song; if you're aching to burst with creativity and renewal – this book is for you. We all have a Wild Woman within. This book will help you find her.
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The Journey is the Destination

By Dan Eldon

Dan Eldon was only 22 years old when he was killed by a mob while covering the war in Somalia. But before that tragedy, Eldon's swashbuckling life and impressive career as a war photographer was near unbelievable. Eldon's optimism and boundless energy live on in this collection of illustrative journals, written between the ages of 14-22, and in a feature film made about his life.
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Letters to a Young Poet

By Ranier Maria Rilke

The German poet Ranier Maria Rilke wrote a series of 10 letters to a 19-year-old cadet, who sought the poet's advice on his own literary career. In the letters, Rilke explores the ingredients for a good, authentic life. You'll balloon with inspiration by page two.
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Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One with the Universe

By Yumi Sakugawa

This exquisite graphic novel draws you into the world of metaphysics, mindfulness, and mediation. A book for people who want to be one with life, the universe, and everything, this is "self help" at its hippest.
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How Should a Person Be?

By Sheila Heti

Heti invents a new genre in this part confessional memoir, part self-help manual, part novel about a playwright left reeling after a failed marriage.
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The Geography of Bliss

By Eric Weiner

We distinguish between countries with metrics like GDP, but how about measures of happiness? NPR foreign correspondent Eric Weiner sets off on a round-the-world journey in quest of the happiest country on earth. While jumping from Iceland to India to Bhutan, Weiner offers insights on foreign affairs, the psychology of happiness, and some suggestions for how you, too, can be as happy as the people of Asheville, North Carolna.
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Courtesy of Penguin Random House
Lincoln in the Bardo

By George Saunders

In this revolutionary work of fiction, Saunders channels hundreds of narrators to create a pastiche narrative around one seminal moment in American history: the death of Abraham Lincoln's son. The characters, both dead and undead, piece together a portrait of Lincoln at his lowest. But really, this isn't just a book about Abraham Lincoln. With his clear belief in the goodness of people, George Saunders has written a book on how to live a good life despite the inevitability of loss.
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Courtesy of Mariner Books
The Life of Pi

By Yann Martel

When Pi is 16 years old, he, his family, and their entire batch of zoo animals board a boat that will take them from India to North America. The ship sinks, and Pi is the sole survivor. Well, let's revise. Pi finds himself sharing a lifeboat with a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a massive Bengal Tiger. In long, surreal, sparkling passages, Martel describes Pi's fight for survival and sanity over his 227-day journey.
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Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf

By Cheryl Strayed

It's time to indoctrinate yourself into the Cheryl Strayed fan club. At the age of 22, Cheryl Strayed's life was at a low point: she'd just lost her mother, was getting divorced, and was hooked on heroine. Four years later, she decided to reboot her life with a solitary trek up the Pacific Crest Trail, stretching from the Mojave Desert to Washington State. You don't have to take the hike to be bettered by the wisdom Strayed picked up along the way.
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Courtesy of Haymarket Books
Men Explain Things to Me

By Rebecca Solnit

If you've ever used the term "mansplaining" to explain the phenomenon of a man pedantically to a woman, you have Rebecca Solnit's tiny tome to thank. In this collection of essays, Solnit explores a variety of issues extremely relevant to today's woman. While reading, you're likely to experience a whirlwind of empowerment, anger, and, most importantly, the inspiration to make a change in the way you walk through the world.
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Courtesy of HarperOne
The Alchemist
By Paulo Coelho

A young Andalusian shepherd leaves his home to find worldly pleasures. Aside from the Andalusian shepherd bit, sounds a lot like the rest of us, right? Written in simple and beautiful language, Paolo Coehlo’s poetic allegory will inspire you to follow your heart. The Alchemist is the second best selling book in the world, so you’ll be inducted into a large community of people equally touched by Santiago’s dreamquest.
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Photo: Ten Speed Press.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up
By Marie Kondo

Should you keep things that give you no joy? That's the revolutionary question behind Kondo's sensational approach to life organization. And if it only inspires you to clean out that junky desk drawer to make room for your art supplies ... Well, isn't that enough?
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Perennial.
Bad Feminist
By Roxane Gay

It's tough times, ladies — but luckily, we've got a roadmap for how to get through them, courtesy of our favorite "bad feminist." This collection traverses personal memories and political ideologies, all while interrogating the concept of a "good" feminist.

No matter where you fall on the feminism spectrum though, one thing is for sure: Gay's book will give you some serious food for thought.
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Photo: Courtesy of TarcherPerigee.
Travels with Myself and Another
by Martha Gellhorn

If you haven't taken the deep dive into Martha Gellhorn obsession, now's the time to get acquainted. The renowned journalist spent much of her life traveling and trying to make sense of the horrors of the world. To boot, she's just really fucking funny. (It's just not fair, you know?) In her memoir, Travels with Myself and Another, Gellhorn trains her keen wit on her own experiences, reflecting on what she's witnessed.

"Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival," she writes in the opening sentences.

Read this if you're looking to travel, to survive, to live, and to be a person.
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Photo: Courtesy of Graywolf Press.
The Empathy Exams
by Leslie Jamison

Jamison's series of essay is exactly what it purports to be: an examination of empathy. The first essay catalogues Jamison's experience as a practice medical patient. (As in, she pretended to be a patient for medical students.) What emerges is a deep rumination on how we cultivate empathy in our lives and how — most importantly — we can be empathetic towards ourselves.
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Photo: Courtesy of Anchor.
Bird By Bird
by Anne Lamott

Lamott's 1994 book on writing gives advice that applies to your writerly life — and literally everything else. The book derives its title from her father's advice re: a book report on birds.

"Just take it bird by bird." Want to write? Take it bird by bird. Sentence by sentence. Want to become a morning person? Take it day by day. Lamott's elegantly worded advice — she is a writer, after all — speaks to the quiet dedication life requires if you want to accomplish anything at all. She believes the act of writing (and the act of trying to write) more important than publication or reward. She encourages crappy writing and failed attempts. Read the book, page by page, and savor its kindly encouraging advice.
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Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
Not That Kind Of Girl
By Lena Dunham

Yep, we're counting this one as inspirational. Dunham is one of our favorite (literal) lady bosses; she accomplished a lot during the wild twentysomething years, and she definitely has wisdom to deliver, with wit to boot.
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Photo: Courtesy of Doubleday.
How To Be A Person In The World
By Heather Havrilesky

Do you read Dear Polly? If you do, then you already know why this book is the best. If you don't, you're majorly missing out, for reasons that we explained in great detail right here.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage Books.
The Year of Magical Thinking
By Joan Didion

When Joan Didion's husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, passed away, she was left to cope with the hole in her life, and in her heart. But this memoir is more elegy than eulogy, as well as a beautiful portrait of how one woman grieves her great loss.
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Photo: Courtesy of Random House.
When Breath Becomes Air
By Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kanthani was a successful doctor in the prime of his life when he learned he had terminal cancer; but in addition to being a brilliant medical mind, he was also a beautiful writer and observer of the human condition.

Compiled from his papers and finished by his wife after Kalanithi's passing, When Breath Becomes Air is an at once heartbreaking and hope-giving book about what it means to truly appreciate life and the little moments that make up our days.
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Photo: Courtesy of Harper Collins.
The Happiness Project
By Gretchen Rubin

Another (slightly) oldie but still goodie: Gretchen Rubin shakes out the cobwebs of her life and figures out how to channel her days toward happiness in a larger sense. If you're feeling blue, this is a practical how-to for shaking things up.
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Photo: Courtesy of Hachette Books.
The Five People You Meet In Heaven
By Mitch Albom

An oldie and a goodie, this book is a work of fiction that functions as a parable for appreciating the time we spend here on this pretty little planet.
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Photo: Courtesy of Riverhead Books.
Big Magic
By Elizabeth Gilbert

Even if you sort of think Eat, Pray, Love is insufferable, Big Magic is, well, actually magical. Smart and insightful, and full of that Elizabeth Gilbert charm, Big Magic is the author fully embracing her accidental guru side — and if you're someone who is still working on unleashing their creative potential (aren't we all) then this book, and the podcast of the same name, could be the answer.
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Photo: Courtesy of Vintage Books.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice On Love & Life From Dear Sugar
By Cheryl Strayed

Lifted directly from Strayed's long-running column at The Rumpus, Dear Sugar is a compilations of personal essays meant to answer the readers who wrote in with their heartaches, heartbreaks, and questions about how to deal with the curveballs life throws our way.

But while she's speaking to specific people, Strayed's writing is wonderfully universal, and her wisdom is at once deeply contextualizing and comforting. A perfect pick-me-up that will make you cry and also want to dry your tears.
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Photo: Courtesy of Simon & Schuster.
The Year Of Yes
By Shonda Rhimes

Um, what advice wouldn't we take from the powerhouse of network TV? Rhimes is basically a genius in our book — and in her book, she proves that by giving badass and totally applicable advice about how to silence self-doubt and channel the person you are truly meant to be. There is a reason that this one is a bestseller many-times over, and you'll find it in the pages.
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Photo: Courtesy of Knopf.
Books for Living
by Will Schwalbe

When looking to better your life through books, where better to start than a book on the best literature for living your life? Will Schwalbe, a journalist and avid reader, will give you all the pull quotes you need from the various authors that have inspired Schwalbe. The veteran writer and editor uses Melville's Bartleby of "the scrivener" to justify your impulse to give up. (Truth be told, giving up can be one of the healthiest things you do for your well being.) Best yet, Schwalbe encourages you to cancel plans and spend a night at home — the type of advice everyone needs to hear on a Saturday night.
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Photo: Photo Courtesy of Scribner.
The Opposite Of Loneliness
By Marina Keegan

Elie Wiesel once said that the opposite of love isn't hate: It's indifference. The opposite of loneliness is equally opaque — but it's what this smart, thoughtful collection gets at.

Another layer: Keegan was newly graduate from Yale and starting a job at The New Yorker when she died tragically in a car crash; her hope for the future makes this collection all the more moving, a reminder that life is precious and should be lived to its fullest.
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