Some books offer wisdom or practical advice, others have the potential to change your life. Some might simply raise a smile. Some are truly terrible, especially the ones that promise instant riches, health and happiness by asking the cosmos for these things, or communing angels, or thinking positively (scroll to the end to discover my nomination for the worst self-help book ever). Here I've selected an eclectic top-10 that for various different I have appreciated over the years.
Of course, reading is a solitary activity, which is fine. But if you want to feel really whole, you won't find all the answers in a book.
By Kahlil Gibran
This 1923 masterpiece by the Lebanese poet-philosopher should be required reading for all—words of wisdom, beauty and inspiration from a fictionalized spiritual sage about to board a ship for home.
• “Love one another but make not a bond of love: Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls"
• “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself”
• “To belittle, you have to be little”
• “Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation”
• “Pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding”
Every line is a gem.
By Viktor E. Frankl
A profound account of how one man survived the Auschwitz concentration camp and what he learned in the process, which is that the very worst situations can sometimes bring out the very best in us. And that everything can be taken from us but one thing: “To choose one’s attitude on any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way." Whatever is going on in our outside world, we never have to surrender the freedom of our inner world. After the war Frankl, a psychiatrist, dedicated himself to what he called logotherapy—an existential approach to mental health based on finding meaning. In spite of everything, says Frankl, say yes to life.
By Meg John Barker
When it comes to relating, dating and mating, we are governed by an absurd collection of idealized fantasies, expectations and injunctions that often contradict each other and indeed human nature, Do you for instance believe in “The One"—your missing other half who will complete you, and vice versa, “forsaking all others," so long as you both shall live? (Oh you do? Well good luck with all that). The author, a writer, psychotherapist, and activist-academic, tears up the rulebook and suggests humane, life-affirming alternatives. In a postmodern world of uncertainty, there are no universal rules. Instead, we can make our own.
By Bronnie Ware
Ware is an Australian nurse who worked for years in palliative care, sitting with people right at the end of their lives, talking with them as they faced the final curtain. What she has delivered to the world is an incredible gift from those on their deathbeds to those of us that aren't. No need actually to buy the book—it's too much about the life and times of the author for my taste, and there's a lot of chaff surrounding the wheat. There's a good summary here, but in brief, these are the commonest regrets:
• I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
• I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
• I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
• I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
• I wish that I had let myself be happier.
Now go and live.
By Alice Miller
This classic, slim volume isn’t about budding little 6-year-old Mozarts. It’s about how so many children become who others want them to be instead of being themselves. Such children often end up parenting their parents—we “gratify their unconscious needs at the cost of our own emotional development,” says Miller. To a greater or lesser extent, the “gifted” child gives up their true gifts: their childhood; their personhood.
By James Hollis
A beautiful little book for anyone in the throes of any kind of existential crisis. Wrote Jung: “We cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be little at evening and what in the morning was true, at evening will have become a lie" (Hollis is a Jungian analyst). So we give up our “provisional personality” and emerge, reborn, into a passionate life.
By Susan Jeffers
For many, the title has become a mantra, a coda for living, though it's perfectly OK sometimes to feel the fear and not do it anyway, too. I once had a tape of Jeffers’ affirmations. I can still hear her voice saying, “everything is unfolding in a perfect way.” Even though it often doesn't feel like it at the time, in the rearview mirror you can often think yes, in hindsight, it unfolded in a perfect way.
By Erich Fromm
The romantic idea of love is that it’s all about thunderbolts, butterflies, cherubs, planets aligning, and, inevitably, heartbreak. Dove c'è amore, c'è anche dolore, as the Italians say—where there is love there is pain. With the rose comes the thorns. But for the famous psychoanalyst Fromm, true love is a choice. He says to forget about “falling” in love, which is a kind of neurosis. Better instead to be ”standing” in love.
By Stephen M. Johnson
Not really a self-help book—this classic text is a must-have for psychotherapy trainees—but it’s also surprisingly useful for everyone else, too. It’s a bit jargonish in places, but if you look carefully, you can find yourself here: your tendencies, their origin, and a way forward. Some therapists are drawn to the chapter on “The Owned Child: The Symbiotic Character.”
By Carol Dweck
An important book that distinguishes people with a "fixed mindset" of ability versus those of a "growth mindset." The former, afraid of failure, don’t try or learn anything new. In my experience, a fixed mindset leads to a kind of psychic agoraphobia—a fear of venturing beyond the tight confines of what you already know. Ability comes through trial, error and perseverance.
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