Many conversations during the first few days of January inevitably turn to the question: “So, do you have any resolutions?” It’s a simple question that can be difficult to answer. Sure, there are things you’d like to change about yourself and your life, but where do you begin? And how do you even go about keeping a resolution?
Instead of picking up a self-help book that you’ll get bored of halfway through, find inspiration in one of the books below. At no point will they tell you to write inspiring quotes on your mirror or to intone aspirations to yourself before bed, but they will provide solid examples for being a better person — and isn’t that what we all want for 2014?
Resolution #1: Be More Understanding
If your resolution is to be more selfless, pick up Carson McCuller’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. The classic novel is told through the perspective of multiple characters but centers around John Singer, a deaf-mute who moves in with a young musician after his caretaker goes insane. You will finish the book with a newfound empathy for those around you.
Resolution #2: Be More Green
2014 is going to be the year you start taking care of the Earth. Really. Seriously. If you need some motivation to finally buy a reusable water bottle and recycle your yogurt containers, read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake. Atwood tells a believable (to the point that it’s eerie) story about how humans are responsible for the apocalypse. It will make you think twice about buying that Poland Springs.
Resolution #3: Strive for Your Goals
Yes, The Art of Fielding is about baseball, but even if you couldn’t care less about the sport, Chad Harbach’s first novel will trick you into thinking you do. The characters in it aren’t the nicest people — they lie, they cheat, they’re often reckless and selfish – but they are good people. It’s that distinction which will leave you fighting back tears as you near the book’s end. Read it if you want 2014 to be the year you stop being scared to chase your goals.
Resolution #4: Be More Proactive
In the age of Union Pool and luxury condos, it’s difficult to imagine Williamsburg the way Betty Smith describes it. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows Frances Nolan, beginning when she is 11 and ending at 17. Though it’s technically a young adult novel, it is well worth an adult revisit. Smith explores tenacity in a powerful way, making her book the ideal read if you’re starting 2014 feeling a bit knocked down. Frances’s persistence, despite her family’s poverty, will be an inspiration.
Resolution #5: Stay in Touch with Your Family
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius chronicles Dave Eggers’s life after he takes in his younger brother following their parents’ death. In the hands of a less capable writer, the story might risk coming off as mawkish and cloying, but Eggers hits all the right notes. If your resolution is to call your parents and your siblings more often, read this book. You’ll finish it with a genuine appreciation for your family, no matter how crazy or stress inducing they might be. Eggers’s book is a powerful reminder of the sacrifices we make for those we love.
Resolution #6: Restore Your Faith in Humanity
The cover of the late David Rakoff’s collection of essays Half Empty includes the warning “No Inspirational Life Lessons Will Be Found In These Pages,” but that’s just not true. What you won’t find are the kind of saccharine lessons that exist in so many self-help books. Still, with quotes like this you will find life lessons in this collection: “People are really trying their best. Just like being happy and sad, you will find yourself on both sides of the equation many times over your lifetime, either saying or hearing the wrong thing. Let's all give each other a pass, shall we?” Rakoff isn’t saying everything will be fine — he’s not even saying most things will be fine. But his is a faith in humanity that's deeply refreshing. Read this if you cringe every time someone says something like, “Well, everything happens for a reason.”
Resolution #7: Be More Politically Active
If you think One Hundred Years of Solitude is just a piece of magical realism, think again. Gabriel Garcia Marquez's book is is an allegory for political strife in Latin America, and it's a perfect read if you’re hoping to get more politically involved this year. The multi-generational story of the Buendía family will inspire you to get more active, and Marquez’s stunning writing will keep you captivated.
Resolution #8: Finish Crime and Punishment
Not only can this book help you with many of your other resolutions, it will also inspire a brand new one (or put to rest a very old one): to finish Crime and Punishment! Reading about the moral dilemmas of Rodion Raskolnikov will force you to ask questions about your own morality. It’s a dense book, but few novels look at the repercussions of choice as well as this one.
Resolution #9: Get Back to Nature
If you’re trying to make this the year that you spend more time outdoors than inside watching Netflix, pick up The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. This expansive collection includes his major speeches, essays and poems, all of which will inspire you to go for a walk instead of refreshing Twitter again.
Resolution #10: Get Your Shit Together
Some resolutions are specific: go to the gym, call mom more often, keep your apartment clean. Some, however, are less defined. If your resolution is to sort out your life — your relationships, your finances, your career, your health, your everything — then you should read My Misspent Youth. Meghan Daum wrote about being a confused half-adult before anyone else, and she is arguably the best at it. Her book covers the disenchantment of online dating, the perils of getting your dream job only to hate it and an especially wonderful essay about what happens to someone who has everything handed to them. And unlike so much of the 20-somethings writing of today, My Misspent Youth isn't cloaked in irony.
Got any ideas for other books that might offer insight into being a better person? Have a book that you find particularly motivating and inspiring? Got any literary resolutions for 2014? Tell us all about it in the comments below.