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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Gift From the Sea
By Anne Morrow Lindbergh

By the time she sat down to write this sparse, lyrical book, Lindbergh was already a mother of five and a professional writer. A trip to the seaside inspired her to write her thoughts on the writing life, the good life, and the life of a woman. It's a book you can turn to again and again, especially if a seaside setting provokes bouts of introspection for you, too.
Option B: Advice for Grieving
By Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant

When her beloved husband, David Goldberg, died suddenly on a family vacation, Sheryl Sandberg experienced feeling like she was in a "void." This book, co-written with psychologist Adam Grant, tracks Sandberg's journey out from that void. It's a manual for resilience. If you're having a hard time, the lessons found in Option B will life you up.
Humans of New York
by Brandon Stanton

You don't have to look exclusively towards public figures and fictional protagonists for inspiration. You can also be inspired by strangers, those throngs of people you pass by on the street and never have the opportunity to speak to. Brandon Stanton made a habit of listening to strangers' stories, and not just the ones in New York. This functions as a tear-jerker and a coffee table book.
All These Wonders: True Stories About Facing the Unknown
edited by Catherine Burns

The Moth is a worldwide storytelling collective that gives regular people the opportunity to tell ten-minute stories to a live audience. The Moth's weekly podcast gives you the chance to hear those stories told live. But if books are more your thing, then this collection of stories will move you to tears, joy, and inspiration just as much as the podcast will.
The Power of Myth
By Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers

Get ready to think of the world, and your place in it, in an utterly new light. For mythologist Joseph Campbell, all the world's civilizations are linked together through pursuit of the same gaping questions about the human experience. In this extended and transcribed interview, Campbell speaks to journalist Bill Moyers about how all of us live out the great patterns of mythology. There's a hero's journey in all of us.
M Train
By Patti Smith

Ever wish you were more of a rock and roll star? With M Train by Patti Smith, you gain an introspective insight into Smith's life as a real rock and roller. Though don't expect a wild memoir. Instead, M Train is a series of melancholy recollections of travel, loss, and the landmarks in her life that are now gone forever.
I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
By Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou, iconic American poet, looks back at the childhood that made her who she was. She's a little girl abandoned by her mother, and living with her devout grandmother in a town full of racists; she's an older girl who's sexually assaulted by a man while living with her mother; finally, she's an independent woman, with the freedom to explore her higher mind in San Francisco. In this harrowing memoir — the first of a series of seven — Angelou's love for writing and literature helps her weather a series of increasingly disturbing events, including rape, abuse, poverty, and abject racism.
Congratulations, By the Way
By George Saunders

Saunders' graduation speech went viral, and rightfully so. In his uniquely hilarious, humble voice, Saunders tells us how he came to prize kindness above all other virtues. The kind life, he says, is not necessarily the easiest one — but it's the only one worth living. It will make you cry. You will buy copies for your friends.
Hope in the Dark
Rebecca Solnit

This slim book, which explores historical moments in which activism has triumphed over particularly grim times, was first published in 2004. In 2016, which many considered to be the start of another dark time, the book was republished. Solnit's message of hope is touching readers much in the same way it did over a decade ago.
A Wrinkle in Time
By Madeline L'Engle

A Wrinkle in Time is one of those children's books that just gets better the older you get. On the surface, the story of a bookish girl, her brilliant younger brother, and their new friend going on a cosmic quest to rescue their father trapped in the dark, evil center of the universe reads like science fiction. Really, though, it's a nuanced fable about kids' first encounters with evil, and being good in the face of dark forces.
Travels With Charley
By John Steinbeck

By the time he set out on a cross-country trip with only his poodle, Charley, as company, John Steinbeck was already a Great American Author. He'd made his living writing stories about the American people. In 1960, he decided he needed to actually go and meet more of those people, and traveled with the question, "What are Americans like?" in mind. Travels With Charley comes now as a memo from a time, and an America, much different than our own. Travels With Charley is less a travelogue and more a novel that Steinbeck forged through real conversations and observations. It'll inspire you to take a road trip and adopt a dog.
The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy
By Douglas Adams

In its own way, this very goofy book about the last Earthling left alive going on a grand intergalactic adventure is pretty inspiring. One never knows what's possible by saying yes to things. When Arthur Dent says yes to getting into his friend's spaceship before the Earth was demolished to make way for an intergalactic highway, he opens the door for the rest of his life.
My Beloved World
By Sonia Sotomayor

Long before she became a Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor was a little girl living in a housing project in the Bronx. Her father was an alcoholic, and her loving mother was busy working. So, when she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at the age of seven, no one was there to sterilize the needles and give her the injections. From then on, she was self reliant. This book tracks Sotomayor's incredible career, from the day she was a little girl with a grave responsibility all the way to Princeton, to the Federal District Court, and finally, to the highest court of them all.
The Glass Castle
By Jeannette Walls

Eleven years ago, Jeannette Walls introduced us to her larger-than-life family in this best-selling, mega-hit memoir. She describes what a childhood being raised by two adventure-seekers who shirked convention and responsibility was like. At times, invigorating. Usually, terrifying, and lacking the expected warmth and security of childhood.

How did Walls go from being destitute in West Virginia to a successful New York writer? Her clear-eyed grit will inspire you to toughly forge forward in the direction of your own dreams.
The Architecture of Happiness
by Alain de Botton

How much does the space in which you live bring you happiness? How much is who you are influenced by where you are? With de Botton's help, you'll survey your environment with new, more thoughtful eyes.
Thinking, Fast and Slow
By Daniel Kahneman

Written by the winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Thinking, Fast and Slow will hack the way you think about your thoughts. In the tome, Kahneman proposes that we process the world using two different "systems," as he calls them. "System 1" is the emotional, reflexive part of us. "System 2" takes the logical approach. Next time you make a decision, you can use Kahneman's guidance to take either the fast or slow approach.
Siddharta
By Herman Hesse

After reading this classic tale of a young prince who renounces his worldly possessions and seeks out spiritual enlightenment, you might be inspired to change your own way of life, too.
The Unlikely Pyramid of Harold Frye
By Rachel Joyce

Harold Frye is unhappy in retirement and unhappy in marriage. Then, a letter from his lost love, Queenie Hennessy, arrives at his doorstep. Queenie's writing from the hospice to say goodbye. Instead of mailing a letter, Harold is seized with the urge to hand-deliver the letter to the hospice 600 miles from his hose. So long as he's walking, he thinks Queenie will live.
A Man Called Ove
By Fredrik Backman

After his wife dies, Ove is prepared to follow her into the Great Beyond. Too bad his new next-door neighbors — an Iranian immigrant, her Swedish husband, and their two daughters — keep asking the grumpy but handy Ove for help around the house. Reluctantly, Ove becomes pulled into the lives of his neighbors. This tale of friendship and redemption is wildly popular for a reason. It'll make you cry.
The Lonely Planet Travel Anthology

With these swashbuckling short-form travel essays from literary powerhouses like Ann Patchett, Alexander McCall Smith, and Pico Iyer, you'll be inspired with the take on the world. It's just outside the door.
Felicity
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Courtesy of Alfred A. Knopf
Wild
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.